Behold the worst review my bonny John ever got and I cherish it because it’s so on the money. But first things first. Samuel Barber completed this Violin Concerto in 1939; a work in three movements, it lasts about 22 minutes. I’ve got this classic 1964 recording and it’s one of my yummier ones.

Barber Violin Concerto

From Bachtrack: Exaggeration and Disinterest Mar John Wilson’s CBSO Programme

Simon Cummings, 08 April 2019. Great composers—or, rather, their greatest compositions—have a tendency to be able to shine through less than ideal performances. This was the situation that faced us in Symphony Hall last Saturday, though it’s important to stress that the root cause lay not with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, or their Chorus, or with either of the evening’s two soloists, but with conductor John Wilson.

Wilson’s approach to all three works on the programme could be summarised as ‘filmic’. It was as if each piece wasn’t quite adequate on its own terms but needed to be given the kind of superficial gloss that might make it suitable for Hollywood. The resulting effect of this was two-fold: exaggeration of the works’ more obviously lyrical or bombastic high points, and a kind of disinterested flattening of their less show-stopping sequences.

Thus, the contrasting episodes of Copland’s Appalachian Spring felt less like components of a single, overarching continuity than the vagaries of a narrative that kept changing its mind. At its most relaxed, as in the deliciously sleepy, dawn- and dusk-like music with which the works begins and ends, Wilson seemed to have little idea what to do, allowing its inherent prettiness to sound with indifference to pacing, shape and nuance. Only when the material became conspicuously excited did Wilson do the same, leading to a more appealing rendition of the assorted Allegro sections, which were lively and fun. (It’s interesting to note that Symphony Hall’s renowned acoustics, supposedly good for everything, audibly struggle when presented with small orchestras performing tight, crisp rhythms such as those in the Copland, on this occasion making the CBSO sound more than a little swamped.) But in hindsight these only made it more apparent how flat was the rest of the work, with clunky gear changes and a weak sense of connection.

The nature of the material in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto played much more into Wilson’s wheelhouse. The lyrical first two movements contain much that is redolent of silent film scores, which therefore suited the cinematic treatment they received. The sweetness in the music often felt rather cloying and over-earnest—where Copland had been likeable, Barber seemed to be spending all his time desperately trying to get us to like him–but the sense of dialogue between soloist James Ehnes and the orchestra, clearly heard here as equals, was highly engaging.

The Violin Concerto is a problematic work at the best of times, due to its weird structural combination of two emotionally-charged movements followed by an evidently bolted-on presto finale that appears to stem more from a desire to satisfy the demands of the original violinist than from the same creative impulse as the rest of the work. Yet on this occasion, Ehnes’ enthusiasm in the finale was a huge relief, his breakneck fingerwork rising above the robotic pulse laid down by Wilson. Best of all, though, was Ehnes’ even more unstoppable encore, a performance of Eugène Ysaÿe’s Violin Sonata no.3 that took real risks, resulting in such nail-biting excitement that the concerto was almost immediately forgotten.

For all the issues that had manifested in the Copland and Barber, nothing and no-one can stand in the way of the juggernaut that is Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. Wilson’s tendency to exaggeration was matched by Walton’s own overblown response to Osbert Sitwell’s libretto. To stunning effect, particularly in the first half of the work: testifying again that the devil has the best tunes, the combination of orchestra and chorus (who, on this occasion, augmented by the University of Birmingham Voices, were simply enormous) during Belshazzar’s unbound, sacrilegious revelries was an absolute riot and hugely involving. Considering the downfall that we all knew was coming next, one almost felt guilty for enjoying it so much.

Bass-baritone Božidar Smiljanić was by turns mesmerising, moving and borderline prophetic as soloist. His take on the introduction to Babylon was masterful, moving abruptly from proudly rattling off a list of valuable commodities to a stern, almost witheringly prolonged articulation of the word “slaves”, concluding with a tender lament for the “souls of men”. Likewise, the almost laughably undramatic moment when the libretto sums up almighty judgement in the wake of all the ungodly merriment in just a single sentence, Smiljanić made profound, as if he were heralding not merely the end of Belshazzar’s days but everyone’s.

Again, though, the music’s more inverted, painful episodes lacked weight, Wilson making them brisk and functional, mere lulls before the storms. When these came, they were overwhelming—how could they not be? But it was just such a shame that the most powerful moments of the concert, such as these, were for the most part in spite of John Wilson’s best efforts, rather than because of them.

One thought on “Samuel Barber: Violin Concerto, op.14, Played by Isaac Stern with the New York Philharmonic and Conducted by Leonard Bernstein

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