This week’s subscription concerts of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra began with the Symphony No.1 in G minor by Russian composer Vasily Sergeyevich Kalinnikov; a decision by no means lacking reason or merit, yet certainly courageous. One could argue that seven decades after its last performance by the SSO in 1946, its time has come again. There is also a subtle link in the programming, since the obscure Russian composer received high praise and a recommendation for one of the few jobs in his life by his much more renowned compatriot, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose famous Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35 finished the official program of the concert.
It is an intriguing dilemma whether the works of lesser-known composers (or writers, poets, and painters) are best forgotten or if it is still our duty to expose them to new audiences. Also, Tchaikovsky’s splendid concerto, presented in the same program as the symphony of his obvious epigone, offers a juxtaposition, which seems almost unfair.
The Symphony No.1 is Kalinnikov’s best-known work, written at the end of the nineteenth century in tremendous hardship, when the composer fought to eke out a paltry existence while affected with constant illness. Few composers struggled as much in their lives as he did. Recognition came late, though this work apparently is still a staple item on the concerts of Russian orchestras. It can rightly claim most stylistic features that Tchaikovsky’s symphonies are famous for: the sweeping melodies, the references to Russian folk songs, the extensive use of brass instruments within a luminous orchestration, and, above all, the solid understanding of compositorial tools, such as counterpoint, imitation, fugal structures, and the like. The problem is Kalinnikov’s often excessive exploitation of these possibilities. For example, the first movement is so overburdened with breathless syncopations (where the pulse is deliberately put on the unemphasised parts of the bar), starting on the second page of the score and finishing, with very few breaks, on the second-last, that, after a while, it simply becomes irritating. Similarly overused is the opening ‘busy signal’ of the second movement on the violins and the harp, and the incessantly rattling triangle in the coda of the last movement. In this work, the youthful enthusiasm and unquestionable talent of its composer notwithstanding, artistic fervour occasionally becomes bombastic and meritorious musical invention can sound meretricious.
Thus, it was somewhat of a pleasant surprise that the skilled preparation of the orchestra and the committed, expert conducting of its chief conductor, David Robertson, made this work appear better than its parts. The lush second subject of the first movement on the cellos and violas was awe-inspiring in its energy and élan. The fugue in the middle of the same movement was delicately introduced, and its soft dynamics were admirably maintained. The brass was never too loud – quite a feat in this score – yet always crisp, and the wind solos were both musical and virtuosically elegant.
John Williams is a composer known to most by his excellent film scores, from Jaws to the Harry Potter movies. His compositions are also frequently played on the concert platform. Anne-Sophie Mutter, the soloist of this concert, had commissioned Markings for solo violin, strings and harp from him, premièred it less than a year ago and now presented it to the Australian audiences. It is a short work, not so much a violin concerto but more a dialogue between the solo and the always actively participating small orchestra around it. As with Williams’s oeuvre usually, it is music of our time without too many challenges for the audience; an evocative piece with a particularly gentle, introverted coda.
The highlight of the concert was Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, the work that made Mutter’s name famous when she first performed it in 1978 under Herbert von Karajan’s guidance at an incredibly young age. With countless performances and two recordings since, it goes without saying that, what Mutter does not know about this work is hardly worth knowing. In her sensitive and mature interpretation, every detail is carefully worked out. This also risks spontaneity (which can be so refreshing) playing a lesser role in her sonic world.
She is, however, the supreme master of her supreme instrument and the two of them work in such perfect symbiosis that errors, musical or technical, are practically out of the question. There was much more tenderness in Mutter’s playing than I remembered from previous performances, from the first elocution of her opening theme in the first movement to the whole of the Canzonetta. Her trademark intense vibrato is still there but less often featuring the glacial colour it was famous for. Instead, it gained a subtle range of speed and intensity, which makes Mutter’s tone even more multifaceted. Playing loud enough to be heard even with a full orchestra in accompaniment is traditionally considered a challenge for soloists. Mutter effortlessly conquers there, but in this performance, she also explored whisper-quiet tones and dynamics, and used them more consistently than many of her colleagues.
Only few soloists take the composer’s instruction seriously and play the slow movement con sordino, or muted. Mutter does that and more by removing the vibrato altogether from the first sounding of the theme. The intimacy of this moment was most convincing, and throughout the movement no opportunity was missed to create a deeply emotional atmosphere.
She was also carefully following the dynamic markings in the two fast movements book-ending the concerto. As a result, many passages – usually performed with ferocious virtuosity – became light in sound and transparent in texture. Robertson and his orchestra unfailingly followed her dynamics; while this demonstrated admirable musicianship, at times major instrumental sections or themes were in danger of not being heard at all. Tempi in these movements were often faster than usual, yet the soloist always allowed freedom in her phrasing, for example, in the Finale’s bucolic second subject. On occasion I found the portamenti, the sliding on one string, somewhat excessive, but then, this is a matter of taste.
The rapturous applause of the audience was rewarded with two encores; first another bow to Williams: the theme from Schindler’s List (1993), followed by a superfast rendition of the Gigue from J.S. Bach’s Partita in D minor.
Anne-Sophie Mutter performed with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra from 14 to 16 June 2018 at the Sydney Opera House. Performance attended: 14 June.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation and the ABR Patrons.