Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto – Neil Crutchley review

Claus Efland – Conductor    Natalia Lomeiko – Violin
De Montfort Hall,  Sunday December 1st 3pm

 Concert Review by Neil Crutchley

There was a time I remember, when every concert held in the De Montfort Hall began with the National Anthem. Many people find that surprising in the 21st century, but for non-professional orchestras, it served a very useful purpose beyond being a patriotic gesture; it gave the players an opportunity to “warm up”.

Since the anthem’s demise, the warming up is often done in the opening bars of the first item on the programme, when exposed string or brass entries could be a less than perfect, to say the least.

I was reminded of this when listening to the first bars of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel overture, not because it was in any way deficient; quite the reverse, it was splendid. The sound and weight of tone the horns produced, followed by the glowing string entry was not only extremely impressive, it was also beautiful. I’ve never before heard the opening of this piece played with such style and affection. It got the overture off to a magical start and happily the rest of the concert lived up to the standard set in these first few bars.

The pacing and phrasing of the overture were superbly judged, which is not always the case with a work where the melodies come so fast and tempi change so frequently, but in this account the Bardi players responded with such elegance that it brought a smile to the face.

Natalia Lomeiko was the soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and along with the orchestra gave us a memorable performance. She has formidable technique and clear, full and incisive tone, which are allied to an admirable musical perception. Her Russian background no doubt helped to bring out the lyrical sweetness and underlying Slavonic yearning of Tchaikovsky’s sweeping melodies. There was a sense of unforced enjoyment in her playing that transmitted itself to the listener. She was aided by a superbly graded and nuanced accompaniment from the orchestra, which never once overwhelmed her.

The sweep and build-up of tension in the as the first movement’s main theme was developed had a true sense of excitement and after a lyrical and heartfelt account of the Andante, featuring some outstanding woodwind playing, the finale burst onto the scene with tremendous verve and danced along with an infectious lilt in the rhythm.

Dvorak’s 7th Symphony is undoubtedly one of his finest. It is also arguably his most challenging for the interpreter, who needs to balance the various elements with skill and insight for the work to have full effect. The influence of Brahms is evident in its seriousness of purpose, yet every bar displays the inimitable fingerprints of the Czech master and the scherzo is one of the most infectiously rhythmic and dynamic movements in all the composer’s nine symphonies.

The first movement begins in a tense fragmentary manner, which gradually builds to a powerful climax, but this is then counterbalanced by an attractively lyrical descending second theme. It is the interplay of these themes that gives this movement its impetus. Claus Efland ensured that melodic, dynamic and rhythmic contrasts received full weight and imbued the whole with a strong sense of momentum; skilfully grading dynamics and ensuring that, as the composer directs, the biggest climax, with its striking off-beat accents, came just before the quiet close.

Again, in the slow movement, the conductor manged to achieve an impressive balance between the appealing lyricism and the darker elements that surface as the movement progresses and in the scherzo he didn’t “jab” at the rhythmic opening melody but let it unfold naturally, making its fortissimo return all the more effective.

In unsympathetic hands the finale of this symphony can sometimes seem rather episodic, but in Efland’s hands it proved to be the crowning glory of a compelling performance. Once more the pacing, dynamic contrast and rhythmic incisiveness were impeccable. Efland kept tight a rein, yet achieved a superb sense of spontaneity: gathering momentum and increasing tension (but wisely not the speed) to the powerful closing bars, which were punched home with a thrilling sense of finality. Magnificent!

No matter how many times I hear the Bardi (and I was at the first concert) I still marvel at the standard of playing it achieves and as I hope I’ve conveyed, this concert showed the orchestra on top form with superb playing from all departments. The relatively small audience thundered its approval, but it deserved a full house. We are lucky to have so fine an orchestra in Leicester.