London Philharmonic Orchestra, Saraste, Royal Festival Hall

Posted on December 16th, 2010

In a programme note for the premiere of his 2nd Violin Concerto in 1943 Bohuslav Martinu wrote of the eternal tension between “absolute music” and music with an expressive purpose. But times and attitudes change and his suggestion that the soloist in this rarely heard piece represents a more objective projection of the material and the orchestra a more emotional response is not the way it sounded now in the very capable hands of Frank Peter Zimmermann.

Distance, as in time or familiarity, does lend a mysterious enchantment to music which might otherwise seem dryly objective and in Martinu’s case the whole issue of his wartime exile to the USA now colours pretty much everything that he wrote. Those highly distinctive melodies quietly eddying or grandly swinging in 6/8 time carry their own poignant message of hopefulness through the restless gyrations of his music. American may loom large – the grandiloquent flourish at the start of this piece struck me as redolent of the main-title for some 1940s film noir – but the Czech homeland is always close by: the wistful reverie of the airy second movement, exquisitely attended by Zimmermann, or the gritty polka which becomes a matter of life and death in the finale. Zimmermann’s cadenza fought hard for life.

Back in 1998 you might have regarded Julian Anderson’s The Stations of the Sun as an excellent example of absolute music – an elaborate orchestral fantasy where the brilliance of the notes themselves count for more than the reasons for them being there. But a decade of contemporary music’s continuing obsession with texture and effect has thrown the emotional subtext of this terrific piece into higher relief. You feel something when you hear it; the elaborate orchestral gestures (and you can hear why it wowed the 1998 Prom audience) unlock our imaginations; a beautiful violin melody proliferating into free variations is something you want to go back to. Anderson is the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s new Composer in Residence and this performance under Jukka-Pekka Saraste will have undoubtedly raised his spirits.

Ours were raised twice in this second half of this most challenging programme. Oscillating violas set the clock ticking to military action and Carl Nielsen’s very own weapon of mass destruction – the snare drum – set off once more to derail his 5th Symphony. Rachel Gledhill might have posed even more of a threat to the well-being of Saraste’s fine performance with her few bars of ferocious extemporisation but she did leave Robert Hill’s first clarinet duly shell-shocked with the loneliest lamentation in music – and that is always hard to forget.

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