Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Tamsin Little in Szymanowksi’s second violin concerto

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Karol Symanowski

  • Beethoven:  Symphony No. 2
  • Mendelssohn:  The Fair Melusina Overtu
  • Szymanowksi: Violin Concerto No. 2
  • Forsyth: Atayoskewin The Dance

Tasmin Little (violin)
conducted by Rune Bergmann

Winspear
March 23, 2019


First, apologies for the delay in this review: your reviewer was indisposed with the cold-flu bug that has passed from student to student in his classes, and which he mistakenly thought he had avoided…


 


The last three weeks saw two major Edmonton Symphony Orchestra events in the Winspear. The first was the ESO debut of the mega-star violinist Tasmin Little on March 23rd. The second was the world premiere of Alexander Prior’s startling orchestral arrangement of a selection of songs from Schubert’s Winterreise a week later on March 31 (review to follow).

Tasmin Little has announced that she will be ‘stepping down’ from the concert platform for good in the summer of 2020, so Edmonton was fortunate to have the opportunity to hear her live in the last year of her concert career. She told me that her retirement (at 53-years old) is just from the concert stage: she wanted to leave while she is “at the top of her game”, and to free up time for teaching and other projects. She would particularly like to continue to create film documentaries about music – she did a documentary on one of her favourite composers, Delius, for the BBC, and has initiated other innovative projects, such as her free CD download The Naked Violin,  which won the 2008 Gramophone/Classic FM Award for Audience Innovation.

There was an element of audience innovation here in the Winspear, as Little brought with her one of the finer, but still lesser-known, violin concertos, the Violin Concerto No.2 by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. She has been exploring Szymanowski’s music recently, recording some of the chamber works and both the concertos for the Chandos label.

Written in 1933, it doesn’t have the exotic passionate ecstasy of the first violin concerto of 1915-1916, which is (for me, at least) an even finer work. Written at a time when he was continuing to explore Polish folk music, it doesn’t really belong to style of his final period, either, when in works like the Symphonie concertante (Symphony No.4, 1932) for piano and orchestra, he moved to a sparer, more neo-classical idiom.

Indeed, to call it a work imbued with folk-song would be both correct and misleading. For that would imply a concerto built on folk melodies and folk styles; instead, Szymanowski melds the folk inspiration (especially scales and rhythms) into his own brand of a rich, yearning exoticism. There are echoes in this concerto of his masterpiece, Karol Roger (King Roger, 1918-1926) and its mood has something of the mystical tone of that opera.

It’s a work that suits Little, for she has the rich tone to bring out that yearning expressiveness, knows the right amount of vibrato to make the cantabile lines soar with the sense of mystical ecstasy, and has the technique to make light of the considerable virtuoso difficulties. For the soloist plays almost continuously in what is an extended one-movement work, has to ride over often thick orchestral textures, and there’s some fiendish double-stopping in the cadenza.

However, it is definitely not a show-off technical fireworks work (perhaps one of the reasons it is less often heard), and there was absolutely nothing flashy about Little’s playing, just a submergence in the music: Szymanowski came first.

The ESO, under a conductor who himself works in Poland, Rune Bergmann, supported her well, but were not at their best, sounding at times a little insecure in the music and the idiom. Nonetheless, I am very glad to have heard Tasmin Little live, and especially in this concerto. It was an imaginative choice to bring to Edmonton, and she then delighted the audience in a showpiece Bartok encore.

The surprise in the concert was Malcolm Forsyth’s satirical The Dance from his suite Atoyoskewin (Cree for ‘Sacred Legends’). There’s quite a lot of Copland in it, and a little bit of Bernstein, but if it does have derivative elements, it is tremendous fun in its own right, with whirling-dervish woodwind writing, lots of drumming and other percussion, real drive, and sometimes a whooping bass. It is very effectively crafted, and the ESO made the most of it – a suitable prelude to the Szymanowski, especially as it has it own nod to country fiddling.

The concert ended with Beethoven. Bergmann’s interpretation of the Symphony No.2 is  bit like the conductor: genial and jovial, with some quite slow tempi, attractive and playing down any dramatic elements. Again, the orchestra were not quite as refined as they have been in some recent concerts. There were much more effective in Mendelssohn’s Fair Melusina Overture, Op.32, which opened the whole concert, and it was good to hear the work, with its delicate scoring, and lovely sinuous Rheingold-ish river music.  But I suspect it was Tasmin Little we had all come for, and the audience were not disappointed.

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