Vadim Gluzman has recently been impressing audiences in Perth and Melbourne with his Tchaikovsky Concerto, but it was Prokofiev he brought to this performance with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Chinese-American conductor Xian Zhang.
Vadim Gluzman. Photo © Marco Borggreve
Gluzman lauded the “unusually dark low register” of his Stradivarius (which once belonged to Leopold Auer) in a recent interview with Limelight, and he wasn’t exaggerating – the sound he drew from the instrument in the solo opening figure of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto was captivating.
Premiered in 1935, the year before Prokofiev made his rather ill-fated return to the Soviet Union, some see this concerto’s accessible lyricism as a deliberate attempt to prepare for his triumphant return to Russia. Whether cynical or not, the piece is, as Limelight’s Philip Scott put it when Lisa Batiashvili performed the Concerto in Sydney last year, “well on the way to becoming the more popular of his two violin concertos” – and the fact that it’s had an airing at the SSO two years running goes some way to prove his point.
With a refulgent upper register, Gluzman’s sound cut through the colourful textures of Prokofiev’s orchestral writing – Zhang coaxing plenty of depth and subtlety from the SSO strings – and established the soloist as very much the main event. While that approach was compelling in the first movement, the intensity of Gluzman’s vibrato felt a little overbearing when applied to the simple, aria-like melody of the second. His sound was sleek, however, as it streamed down from the instrument’s upper register to the darker bite of his low end, and his final pizzicatos – accompanying the horns – were resoundingly present in the Concert Hall. Gluzman’s muscular playing made for an exciting finale, the violinist making short work of the technical flourishes, crunching double-stops and Prokofiev’s grotesque waltzing, coloured by castanets (the Concerto was premiered in Spain) with Zhang stoking the orchestra to a thrilling finale. Gluzman’s encore – the Sarabande from JS Bach’s second violin partita – was beautifully dispatched, the violinist finding the intimacy I missed in the concerto’s central movement, his sound touched by only the lightest vibrato.
On either side of the Prokofiev were two works that begin with an immediately arresting invocation of fate: the three brass notes that herald Verdi’s Overture to La forza del destino and perhaps the most famous orchestral opening of all, that of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with its dramatic four note motif described by the composer (if his notoriously prone to embellishment secretary and biographer Anton Schindler is to be believed) as “fate knocking on the door.”
Verdi scrapped his original introduction to his 1862 opera La forza del destino, replacing it in 1869 with what has become one of his most famous overtures, adored for its beauty and drama – both of which Zhang and the SSO brought in equal measure, from the animated strings of the opening to the oboe melody taken from the tenor-baritone duet in the fourth act, Invano, Alvaro.
In fact, there were many fine wind moments throughout the Overture, as there were in the final high-drama work on the program: Beethoven’s Fifth, which was given an agile, but full-bodied performance by Zhang, with spacious moments – such as Diana Doherty’s oboe solo, again, in the first movement – and plenty of punch where needed – the horns, particularly, had an exciting edge to them. Zhang’s reading brought plenty of focus to the beauty of the wind lines, and she drew some fine pianissimos from the orchestra – the slithering lower strings of the third movement and the spritely pizzicato section was nicely done, the conductor getting an exquisitely soft sound from the musicians. With her bow drawn back so far, when she released and the crescendo swept into the fourth movement’s majestic opening, the ensemble suddenly sounded enormous, setting up the work’s rousing climax.
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performs Beethoven Symphony No.5 at the Sydney Opera House until July 8