SLAVIC DANCES WITH YOUTHFUL ARDOUR
Viviane Hagner, violin; VSO/ Michael Francis, Works by Janacek, Glazunov, Bartok, Kodaly and Enesco, Orpheum, March 8, 2014
While we frequently see young soloists gently encouraged by elder masters, it was nice to see a concert in which two young, but maturing, artists come together for an evening of music. 36-year old violinist Viviane Hagner was born in Munich to a German father and Korean mother, making her international concert debut at the age of 12. Now, a regular soloist with leading orchestras, she has performed (and recorded) the world premieres of both Unsuk Chin's and Simon Holt’s violin concertos. Here her collaborator was up-and-coming British conductor Michael Francis, just in his forties, who was recently appointed Chief Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the, Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in Sweden. The take-off in Francis’ success and visibility started in a way that is now familiar: by ‘stepping in’ for more celebrated conductors at short notice, in this case for Valery Gergiev and John Adams with the London Symphony Orchestra in 2007, and similarly with the San Francisco Symphony in 2010.
I liked the variety on offer at this concert, featuring works we should hear more regularly but are often difficult to programme. When was the last time we heard Janacek’s Lachian Dances, Bartok’s Dance Suite or Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta? Well, here we get them all together, with Glazunov’s Violin Concerto as the centerpiece.
Janacek’s six Lachian Dances (1890) are in many ways just a Moravian variant of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, balancing brisk, rustic rhythms with quieter, more pastoral moods. Michael Francis immediately showed a strong feel for the structural lines of these pieces, often coaxing the violins into an authentic Czech ‘bite’ that kept the texture sparkling. Only in the 2nd and 4th dances did I feel the need for more variety and intensity of expression.
The Glazunov Violin Concerto (1904) can easily be seen to fit into the same Eastern European tradition, even though it is a truly Russian work. While not known for its structural cogency, it is a work of colour and has often received a ripely-romantic treatment from many violinists, exposing long lyrical lines, a sweetness and beauty, and of course moments of delicious virtuosity. This was not Viviane Hagner’s way, however. As an exponent of 20th C. concertos, she attacked this work with strong sinew and intensity, accenting angularity rather than lyrical flow. It makes a remarkable difference: the work often had a sparseness and severity to it, some passages taking me to Prokofiev, others possibly to Hindemith or Alban Berg. Here sparks were flying at all times, incisiveness always dominating beauty in Hagner’s tone. Even the famous last movement had a weight and demonic thrust that one infrequently hears. And the cadenza somehow summoned up Bach’s uncompromising Partitas more than anything else! Some of Glazunov’s gentle orchestration had a tough time with this approach but, I admit, I found the interpretation refreshing, as controversial as it might be. And so, apparently, did the audience.
The two Hungarian pieces showcased the budding conductor’s skills. Here it seems that Maestro Francis fares best when he can set out a broad orchestral palette, develop strong clean lines, and imbue this structure with his own brand of youthful energy – perhaps a bit like the young Andrew Litton. He is not wooed easily by idiosyncrasy, or extreme flexibility in phrase or expression. This approach worked creditably in much of the Kodaly Dances (1933), finding structural weight and considerable frission in some of the massed string passages in the middle. What I missed perhaps was Hungarian colour and charm. Even at the opening, the cellos were strong but not free enough in their phrasing, the following horn was too emphatic, and the later clarinet solo was not piquant enough to reveal the subtleties of Hungarian expression. There is a lot of ‘play’ here (witness Háry János), but the young conductor seemed to treat a lot of detail pretty ‘straight’. The ending was rhythmically strong but again did not seem fully idiomatic.
Bartok’s Dance Suite (1923) is of course a masterpiece, full of wit, peculiarly Hungarian rhythmic pulls and pushes, combining this with a subtle type of lyrical melancholy. One could see that Michael Francis made an admirable effort to get all this complexity together. However, the actual execution (especially in the winds and brass) seemed to evolve in a way that was occasionally powerful but equally too big and too slow to generate much electricity. Again, Francis tends to wed energy with smooth, structured contours, not exposing pungent detail with the flip of a wrist. But a lot of the execution here surely has to be sharp and pointed with quick contrasts. Overall, the performance was certainly serviceable but, I think, somewhat of a work in progress for the conductor. I am now acutely aware of just how much the legendary Hungarians, Solti, Dorati, and Fricsay, had to know to make this wonderful work evolve so fluently. Welcome to the joys of being a ‘young’ conductor!
© Geoffrey Newman 2014