Karen Gomyo (violin), VSO/ Jeffrey Kahane: Works by Mendelssohn, Brahms and Schumann, Orpheum, October 19, 2018.


Violinist Karen Gomyo has become a perennial favorite in Canadian concert halls, a status that now increasingly extends to Europe as well. Born in Tokyo, the violinist grew up in Montreal before moving to the preschool program at the Juilliard School at the invitation of Dorothy DeLay.  Her captivating stage presence and remarkable virtuosity are the most obvious attributes that keep her in the spotlight, while the range of tone colour that she can draw out of her Stradivarius is stunning by any standards. In previous appearances here, she has given performances of brilliance and character, even if her youthful eagerness and a tendency to overemphasis have sometimes compromised interpretative depth. Her current reading of the Brahms Violin Concerto seemed to take a large step forward. This was a performance of genuine long-run vision and command, featuring a compelling mix of architecture, feeling and tonal beauty. It was the best performance of the work in Vancouver since Midori’s perceptive traversal over five years ago. Her collaborator was Jeffrey Kahane, who gave her plenty of room to work, while also contributing Mendelssohn’s The Fair Melusina overture and Schumann’s ‘Spring’ Symphony on his own.

One has to get used to certain features of Gomyo’s style: while always technically-commanding, the violinist is also consistently intense and sometimes feisty, and has a penchant to impart little dramatic pushes-and-pulls and inflected crescendos to her phrasing and line. Some of this emphasis drives a fine wedge between insight and over-adornment. Combined with a cunning legato line, such an arsenal might bring variety and interest to the shorter concertos such as the Mendelssohn, Bruch or Tchaikovsky. But hardly the Brahms or Beethoven, which require a deeper (and more naked) investment from the performer. That is what makes Gomyo’s effort on this occasion an accomplishment. Even the legendary Kyung-Wha Chung, who also imbued works with remarkable passion and technical brilliance in her early days, took many years to fashion a truly satisfying interpretation of the latter two concertos. And in a performance here just last year the estimable virtuoso Ray Chen failed to carry the line of the Beethoven very well at all, since he failed to fully vanquish the ghost of Paganini in his approach.

The Brahms concerto did not have the most distinguished opening: Kahane’s conducting lacked breadth and he introduced an unmarked accelerando half way through the opening tutti. But Gomyo’s entrance was commanding, with a strong arch to her phrasing and a careful sculpting of the dramatic lines. There were some of the violinist’s characteristic dramatic inflections, but these gained increased meaning as the cantabile lines began to flow. More and more, the purity and intimacy of her lyrical expression held hands with her raw cutting strength, and the violinist had to exert less effort to put telling detail in place. Her playing was always precise and full of tonal beauty, but the outstanding feature was how invested in the work she became, and how coherently her interpretation fit together. Gomyo never failed to bring out the sinew and majesty of her part, yet she always ensured that a natural lyrical flow and concentration was maintained. Her closing cadenza was an absolute triumph.


The Adagio started plainly, but Gomyo’s entry firmly established the appropriate bittersweet yearning, and she developed the somber emotional shadings with poignancy. Except for a few slides and expressive rubato that struck me as slightly too glamorous, there was great simplicity and refined beauty in her playing, and it was her tenderness and commitment that allowed the movement to achieve real suspension. One should feel a strong sense of release as one enters the finale, and I really felt it here. Gomyo’s playing started out with so much joy and delight – and such graceful elegance too. She could open up all of her technical tricks – including some passages of beautifully-executed spiccati – but they did not compromise the wonderful rhythmic bounce of it all; in fact, they just enhanced the pleasure. It was a compelling and distinctive performance, having a strong grip over the whole while managing to draw one in more and more as it progressed. From a technical perspective, I do not think the concerto could be better played: the violinist’s ease in execution was disarming, and there was not a single smudge or intonation difficulty from beginning to end.

Jeffrey Kahane certainly played his part in the overall integration of the concerto but his conducting was fairly no-nonsense throughout, having rhythmic grip and energy but less open to nuance or expressive development. The Fair Melusina has never been one of Mendelssohn’s most enticing overtures, but its historical exposure was doubtlessly enhanced by Sir Thomas Beecham’s early love of the piece: he recorded it twice. It starts from beguiling naturalistic allusions (coaxed from the winds) and then gives way to long stretches of energy and drive, ending in relative tranquility. It was the uncompromising drive that dominated Kahane’s performance, tending to make the work less colourful and varied than it actually is. The closing performance of Schumann’s ‘Spring’ Symphony was cut from the same cloth, tightly-knit and rhythmically cogent (recall George Szell), but not cultivating much of the sweet expectancy or gentle whim and caprice that one identifies with the season or the composer. The first three movements tended to the forthright, but the finale made its mark through compelling energy and frisson. Here the orchestra distinguished itself by an increasingly-attentive response from the strings and an impressive contribution from the brass.

It was an invigourating programme all told, but the big story was Karen Gomyo’s Brahms.


© Geoffrey Newman 2018