Every so often a CBSO concert comes up full of surprises. It happened last Wednesday, with a Bartered Bride Overture that hardly drew breath under Edward Gardner’s no-nonsense direction, yet dazzled with the clarity of its busy string figuration as it sped along like a finely-tuned racing car. Zipping stuff indeed.
Bartok’s Violin Concerto No.2 impressed even more, although for entirely different reasons. Gardner drew such sensitivity and character from the orchestra, and so many subtleties from the kaleidoscopically transparent score (the delicacies of the Andante involving woodwind, harp and celesta were quite magical), there were times when you almost stopped listening to the soloist.
But the quietly imposing presence and dazzling technique of Valeriy Sokolov made that quite impossible. The young Ukrainian’s vibrant warmth was, as it should be in Bartok’s most melodious outpourings, tinged with elegiac poignancy, while the more virtuosic elements of the piece sparkled with agility. And in the scampering excitement of the finale Sokolov’s focus and precision transcended the Hungarian folkiness and gypsy fiddling to suggest, if not entirely convince, that the composer is doing more than just going through the motions.
After such a stunning performance – although the audience’s merely polite applause was somewhat unexpected – one couldn’t help wondering if Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 might throw up another surprise. It certainly did.
Despite being impeccably shaped and often oozingly beautiful in tone and shading, Gardner’s interpretative doors remained disappointingly closed to new insights, preferring instead to polish surfaces rather than explore the emotional pungency and brooding undercurrents of the work.
Of course, this particular (read conservative) crowd lapped it up with great gusto – which wasn’t at all surprising.