CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★

It reads like a story from that master of the gothic and macabre E.T.A. Hoffmann. An unstable composer of genius writes a concerto for his friend, a renowned violin virtuoso. The composer claims that the slow movement’s melody was dictated to him by angels but the virtuoso is unimpressed and never plays the work in public. The composer dies two years later in a lunatic asylum and the virtuoso deposits the score in a library where it lies for eighty years. But the virtuoso’s troubled spirit cannot rest and he contacts his great-niece – herself a renowned violinist – and urges her to get the work performed. Stripped of the supernatural element that’s the story of Schumann’s Violin Concerto of 1853, its rejection by Joseph Joachim and its first performance in 1937.

Joachim derided it as morbid, drab, repetitive and ineffective, so is it worth reviving? James Ehnes' performance deserves an emphatic “Yes”. It opens like a symphony with the CBSO under Markus Stenz thundering into the dramatic D minor opening., It's a demanding part for the soloist but not a showy or ingratiating one, with Schumann’s piano-derived lines sitting awkwardly for the violin. Ehnes made light of the difficulties and offered colour and shades in what, in lesser hands, might sound like monochrome music. The delicate slow movement was a sylvan, hushed intermezzo leading straight into the dancing polonaise finale. Not top drawer Schumann but very enjoyable. It’s a short work without a cadenza leaving space for Ehnes’ encore. In around six minutes Ysaÿe's Sonata No.3 for Solo Violin in D minor ‘Ballade’ supplied all the elite virtuosity the Schumann lacked: double and triple stops, phenomenally fast triplets and a stunning applause-grabbing final flourish of demisemiquavers. Phew!

Two years ago Stenz conducted a wonderful performance of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony and in Bruckner’s Symphony No.7 he showed the same quiet authority, drawing some magnificent playing from the CBSO. As in the Mahler there was no wilful exaggeration for effect, the huge dynamic extremes were all Bruckner’s, plain and unvarnished. The opening, so hushed as to be a sound of nature not music, blossomed naturally into that majestic melody lovingly caressed by the cellos. When power was required the CBSO brass and bass section obliged as in one simple but stunning passage where the music descends – here it sounded like Wotan striding down step-by-step to Nibelheim. The Adagio, Bruckner’s threnody for Wagner, was solemn and deeply-felt with its quartet of Wagner tubas adding richness to the sound. Stenz employed the (dubious) drum-roll and cymbal clash but made it sound organic rather than an appliquéd extra. Lovely detail too from the wind section with flute, oboe and clarinet adding individual pleas, plaints and prayers. The finale was as thunderous, explosive and affirmative as one could have wished for. More Bruckner please in his bicentenary year.

Norman Stinchcombe

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