The concerto more often than not precedes the symphony. It's the traditional way of programme building. The symphony rules. But when the symphony is as concise as the concerto is elaborate, a little role-reversal is in order.
Elgar's Violin Concerto is one of the very few concertos to command second-half status. And not just on account of its length (a whopping 50 minutes) but because of its grandly symphonic stance. You might follow it with a Mahler or Bruckner Symphony (anything less could prove anti-climactic), but in these calorie-conscious times that would be too much food for one meal. Then again, you could precede it with Sibelius's Third Symphony as Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra did here and still have your audience thinking that despite its shortish duration and extraordinary concision of ideas and execution it's still more than enough music for one half of a concert, even the first half.
Sibelius didn't need a big orchestra, four movements, and heavenly lengths to convey size and scale. That's already built into the musical landscape. Davis's fine performance of the Third conveyed the potential energy of the chugging ostinato figure at the outset, but when concerted double-basses made their presence felt a few bars later, the ground beneath us seemed to open up. That's because this music is anchored like no other.
Then there's its reach - the space factor. Later in this first movement there's a passage where the palest top layer of violins answer to string basses with nothing in between. Suddenly the movement's horizons are boundless. It's immense, this music. But there isn't a spare note anywhere. Harmonic thickening is at a premium, unison writing conveys openness. And the rhythm, that Davis and the LSO strings kept so trenchant, propels us irresistibly to parts unknown. And another thing: one bar and you know who wrote it.
That's true of Elgar, too, of course, though in his case appearances can be deceptive. Hilary Hahn, the young and undeniably gifted soloist in his Violin Concerto, gave us the fine, upstanding Englishman but not the passionate soul seething beneath. She's a cool customer, is Hahn. When she's not playing she glances about her as if quietly sizing up her colleagues. For one so young her reserve is almost chilling. Indeed, the playing is so controlled and contained that the impression is of a player dispassionately viewing her own performance from without, not feeling it from within. Close your eyes and it's the same sensation. A little more passion in the playing wouldn't have gone amiss.
She and Davis seemed to be in different pieces. With each orchestral tutti there was a sense of release, a ratcheting up of the temperature. Hahn's role in the drama sounded to be solely that of repose. But you have to earn the repose. The bravura writing simply went through the motions; so many notes saying nothing. Crisis, what crisis? That seemed to be her viewpoint. Yes her playing was poised and feminine, often gravely beautiful. But the tone of the whole performance was limply elegiac. And that's not the piece I know. Maybe the Sibelius should have come second.Reuse content