Arguably it was an odd choice of programming to pair the Overture from Strauss's operetta Die Fledermaus with Korngold's Violin Concerto, and then to follow with Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony after the interval. Although they were both Austrian composers and excelled in high quality light music, the link between Strauss and Korngold seems more assumed than real. And one could also argue that overtures are meant to be followed with what the composer intended and not with someone else's composition. On the other hand, the programme and presumably the performers attracted a sizeable audience to the Festival Hall although competition for other activities was stiff on this particular evening.
Conductor Vassily Sinaisky treated Strauss's light-hearted overture as seriously as the other pieces on the programme. This approach gave us full transparency of the score; there was no doubt about what the leading and inner voices were presenting at any particular moment. On the other hand, Sinaisky's approach felt just a touch heavy-handed and some of the rubato passages were perhaps over-dramatised. Nevertheless, given the choice between Sinaisky’s committed reading and so many careless performances of such so-called light music on far too many occasions, I vote for Sinaisky.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold is probably best known for his highly successful career as composer of film music. He was feted in Hollywood and rewarded with two Oscars. Yet arguably Korngold's film music fed from his talent for writing opera as well as instrumental music. Long before Hollywood called (initially at the invitation of celebrated stage director Max Reinhard), Korngold's operas were conducted by Richard Strauss, Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer while his piano pieces were played by Schnabel and Cortot. Korngold's musical material for his film music could have served for any other genre which he composed for. Thus the reverse process – that is using themes from his films for other genre – is understandable and entirely legitimate. The violin concerto was requested by the great Polish violinist (and founder of the Israel Philharmonic) Bronislav Hubermann but was in the event premiered (in 1947) and played triumphantly for several years by Jasha Heifetz.
The problem with the violin concerto is that, although easy on the ear for the listeners, it is tremendously difficult to play. It takes such exceptional virtuosos as Heifetz and, in our age, Vadim Gluzman to play it. Gluzman makes one think that violin playing is easy and natural. He produces beautiful sounds on any part of his violin – in Korngold's concerto the violinist spends a great deal of time in the highest tessitura of his instrument – and in any hair-raising virtuoso passages. Indeed, not only does Gluzman deliver, for instance, complicated double-stops and super fast passages with the greatest of ease, but at the same time he remains fully in control of the whole orchestral score: he communicates with conductor as well as the orchestra throughout the process. Korngold's beautiful melodies (taken from his films Another Dawn, Juarez and Anthony Adverse) were sung by Gluzman's violin with exquisite beauty while a feisty theme from The Prince and the Pauper and a set of variations on it were perfectly served by Gluzman's evident sense of humour and inexhaustible energy. This was a mesmerising performance, ably supported by Sinaisky and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
The second half of the concert consisted of a fully passionate but disciplined rendering of Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony. But the highlight remained Gluzman's performance of the Korngold violin concerto: it made a red-letter day.
By Agnes Kory
Photo: John Kringas