Benjamin Baker, Salomon Orchestra / Holly Mathieson – Berg: Violin Concerto & Schmidt: Symphony no.4

Benjamin Baker (violin), Salomon Orchestra / Holly Mathieson

St John’s, Smith Square, London; Monday 16 October 2017

Richard Strauss, arr. Rodziński Der Rosenkavalier – Suite (1945)

Berg Violin Concerto (1935)

Schmidt Symphony No. 4 in C (1933)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Never an ensemble to shirk a challenge, the Salomon Orchestra’s current season continued tonight with what, aesthetically, was an almost perfectly balanced programme – and whose second half brought a timely revival (in the UK) of the Fourth Symphony by Franz Schmidt.

With its catalyst in the tragically unexpected death of his daughter, this work was consciously intended as an ‘in memoriam’ and this is reflected in a formal design as fuses the customary four movements into an unbroken continuity; expressively also in that salient themes return almost as memories being recollected. From which perspective this performance succeeded admirably – Holly Mathieson having the measure of an overall design as though akin to the ‘journey of a life’, whose ending is tangibly (thereby inevitably) anticipated in its beginning.

The exposition’s themes – the first as introspective as the second, with its Magyar overtones, surges forth – were judiciously contrasted, and if the development was a little too rhetorical, it evinced the right cumulative intensity leading into an Adagio whose anguished climax was set into relief by the inward eloquence on either side. A touch stolid rhythmically, the scherzo did not lack impetus as it headed – lemming-like – over its cliff of disaster; in the aftermath of which the reprise gradually re-established momentum as the work came resignedly full-circle.

Its unity within diversity aside, the Fourth Symphony is a stern test of orchestral skill such as the Salomon met head on. The strings evinced the burnished warmth necessary for this music, and while woodwind intonation was on occasion wanting, it did not undermine an orchestral texture through which brass emerged with the appropriate impact. The solo contributions were well taken, not least from trumpeter John Hackett and cellist Kate Valdar, and Mathieson can take considerable credit for her advocacy of a piece whose repertoire status is still not secure.

Photo credit: Kaupo Kikkas

Before the interval, Berg’s Violin Concerto had provided the ideal complement. Similarly inspired by the premature death of a woman (in this instance the teenage Manon Gropius), it also focusses on that continuum between life and death, as well as the transfiguration which may result. Here again the four movements, divided into two parts, can be difficult to make cohesive and though Benjamin Baker (above) was not lacking consistency, his rather unvaried tone leading to an expressive uniformity as made this, ultimately, an interpretation in the making.

Mathieson, though, was attentive and always responsive in support. Beforehand, she presided over an enjoyable account of a suite arranged towards the end of the Second World War from Der Rosenkavalier. Probably undertaken by the conductor Artur Rodziński, it takes in several of the highlights from Richard Strauss’s sprawling comedy – rather as does Robert Russell Bennett’s ‘symphonic picture’ derived from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which likewise has the result of reducing the larger work to a succession of glib purple-patches devoid of any real context.

Rendered with aplomb, it was surely possible, even so, to find a more fitting concert-opener – Zemlinsky’s Sinfonietta would have been ideal temporally and conceptually. That aside, this evening was a fine demonstration from the Salomon and auspicious occasion for Mathieson.

For more concert information from the Salomon Orchestra, head to their website

Franz Welser-Möst‘s pioneering recording of Schmidt’s Symphony no.4, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, can be heard on Spotify below:

In concert – Benjamin Baker and Daniel Lebhardt @ St James’s Piccadilly, London


Benjamin Baker (violin, above), Daniel Lebhardt (piano), St James’s Church, Piccadilly, 18 January 2016

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

Britten – Suite for violin and piano, Op.6 (1934-35)

Elgar – Sonata for violin and piano in E minor, Op.82 (1918)

Violinist Benjamin Baker and pianist Daniel Lebhardt are both promising musicians in their twenties, and here they performed an attractive pairing of the young Britten and the ageing Elgar. This was part of the Richard Carne Trust Series, a lunchtime concert given in the generously lit, spacious surrounds of St James’s Piccadilly, a fine Christopher Wren church.

Britten was a relatively serious child, and although the Suite for violin and piano is an early work, completed in his early twenties, it has the mark of a composer already sure of himself in form, melody and writing for the violin. Britten still has fun through a number of dance forms, though, and after a bold as brass introduction Baker and Lebhardt strode confidently through a March, well balanced and intuitively finding the flexibility in Britten’s rhythms.

This togetherness was even more apparent in a dramatic Moto perpetuo, a nervy piece of writing, but this fraught mood dissipated in the bell-like chords with which Lebhardt began the Lullaby. Finally the Waltz, a brazen but very enjoyable affair where the performers could perhaps have been more exuberant, but where they took some very tasteful liberties with the rhythm, as Britten instructs in the score.

Elgar’s Violin Sonata was a different story, darkly passionate in the intial outpouring of feeling in its first movement but contrasted with a ghostly quieter section that even on a cold January lunchtime sent a shiver down the spine. Elgar is fiercely lyrical in the outer movements of this work, and Baker did well to project this over an equally active piano part. The two found the grace of the Romance, where it felt as though they were dancers in hold, charming with slow steps but occasionally drifting apart.

Elgar’s determination returned in the finale, the tune consistently putting its head above that of the piano and achieving a well-won victory by the end. The two showed great understanding of the older man’s music, a fine interpretation that reminded me this piece was one of Nigel Kennedy’s earliest recordings. Baker and Lebhardt, then, have followed in illustrious footsteps!