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Recalling the Great Violinists of the Past

Vadim Gluzman, violin  and Bramwell Tovey, conductor

  Works by Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, Orpheum, June 5, 2010

     This concert features the long overdue return of Vadim Gluzman, the exciting 37 year old Israeli-Ukrainian violinist, playing the concerto of his fellow countryman, Dimitri Shostakovich.  TheViolin Concerto No. 1 was composed in 1947 for the legendary David Oistrakh, but due to Stalinist censorship, was not performed until 1955.  While the concerto received immediate world acclaim, Oistrakh’s performances were regarded as so definitive that it took thirty years for any other violinist to dare attempt it.  It entered into the standard violin repertoire only in the late 1980’s.  The concerto is a dark and disturbing work in which the violin acts as an expressive ‘voice’ over rather bleak and haunting orchestral terrain.  The difficulty of the work is more than technical: the widest range of moment-to moment subjective feeling is required, and the violinist very quickly has to move from pain and despair, to determination, to anger, to repose, and so on.  This is especially true in the third movement cadenza, one of the most extended ever written.

Vadim Gluzman

Vadim Gluzman

     Vadim Gluzman gave an absolutely commanding performance of this concerto, giving it size, structure, eloquence, and an expressive freedom that is rare.  Having such richness and warmth on his lower strings and such purity on the upper ones (he plays a 1690 Stradivarius), he had all the resources to conquer the emotional complexity of the work and make every note ‘speak’.  This violinist seemingly has it all: power and discipline, a long soaring lyricism rich in feeling and nuance, combined with technical ease and tonal beauty.  As a fellow concertgoer remarked: ‘We have seen many very good violinists with the VSO in the past few years but nothing quite like this.’  Actually, Gluzman does not remind me of young violinists of the current generation: in terms of musical architecture, he is more like Oistrakh himself, but with the subjective feeling and humanity of a Yehudi Menhuin or Issac Stern as well (both these violinists actually encouraged him).  I had really forgotten what performances from the grand old days were like!

     Interestingly, Gluzman carried this performance to an explosive standing ovation in spite of a rather undistinguished contribution by Bramwell Tovey and the VSO.  The orchestra was often too loud, and the lower strings too thick, to bring out the quiet, distilled brooding required. Brass and wind interjections seemed literal, rather than pointed and sarcastic, and were not exact enough.  When some of the rhythmic figures of the last movement were dispatched with the unbridled passion of Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance, it seemed foreign to the composer’s style.

     On the other hand, Tovey’s interpretation of the final work on the program, Tchaikovsky’sPathetique Symphony, was admirably fresh.  While the sadness of this work often invites broad, emotionally-indulgent readings, the conductor stripped away all romantic excess, giving one of the leanest, most direct interpretations I have ever heard.  With an orchestral sound smaller than normal, this sharpness of focus was sort of like hearing Tchaikovsky ‘on original instruments’, bring out its unique dramatic contrasts and instrumentation in a most revealing way.

    But the big story here is a violinist that any serious music lover must hear!  Vadim Gluzman has now appeared on 10 CD’s (some with his pianist wife, Angela Joffe).  His most recent, of the Barber concerto, is on BIS-SACD-1662; the Tchaikovsky and Glazunov on BIS-SACD-1432. Check out also the YouTube extract from the Brahms concerto.

© Geoffrey Newman 2010