Arcana at the Proms – Prom 61: Leonidas Kavakos, Vienna Philharmonic & Andrés Orozco-Estrada – Dvořák & Korngold

Prom 61: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrés Orozco-Estrada

Dvořák The Noonday Witch Op.108 (1896)
Korngold Violin Concerto (1945)
Dvořák Symphony no.9 in E minor Op.95 ‘From The New World’ (1893)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 4 September 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

If ever a piece of music could depict the passing of summer, Dvořák’s symphonic poem The Noonday Witch would make a good choice. Introduced to the Proms by Sir Henry Wood in its year of composition, 1896, it raised the curtain for the second Prom of the season from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

There was charm aplenty in the opening pages of this late work, the mother and young son going about their domestic business with a sense of blissful routine, but as the witch of Karol Jaromir Erben’s folk tale appeared the mood grew decidedly chilly. Strings turned icy, woodwind soured and the brass sounded warning notes, telling us how everything was about to go very wrong indeed. The Viennese would not have been too familiar with this music, but it showed in a good way as Andrés Orozco-Estrada secured an insightful performance, the darker hues of the story coming to the fore with descriptive power.

The sun reappeared from behind the cloud for Korngold’s Violin Concerto, soloist Leonidas Kavakos taking us to the heights. The concerto begins with one of the composer’s top-drawer themes. Full of big screen occasion but tender enough to melt the heart, it reaches for a perfect melodic interval and deliberately falls just short, tugging at the heartstrings. That sense of yearning powers the first movement, in which the orchestra were a smooth partner for the ardent violinist. Kavakos possesses a sumptuous tone, even at quiet dynamics, though on occasion when he reached for the highest notes his tuning was just awry.

The second movement glittered with its Hollywood scoring, beautifully rendered by Orozco-Estrada, while Kavakos effortlessly hit the sweet spot with his part without cloying. The finale crackled with energy in response, the to and fro with the orchestra brilliantly judged and executed, before signing off with aplomb. In a daring encore Kavakos gave us Ruggiero Ricci’s arrangement of Tárrega’s most famous guitar piece Recuerdos de la Alhambra, performed with an admirable lack of fuss given the considerable physical challenges behind the scenes. Kavakos really is the swan of the violin, channelling the physicality of his playing into the most natural of styles.

After the interval, a fresh set of clothes for Dvořák’s beloved Symphony no.9, From The New World. It is easy to forget just how many good original tunes this symphony holds, the composer spoilt for choice as he moulds, develops and interweaves them. One of the first symphonies to make such prominent use of the pentatonic scale, it is a continued delight when presented to the audience fresh, and the lightness of touch often experienced here gave room to the melodies themselves.

The Largo was the undisputed highlight. Aided by a wonderful cor anglais solo from Wolfgang Plank, it was slightly faster but still found the time to breathe with its phrasing, pausing where necessary, and in the magical coda allowing the solo strings to come to the fore.

The first movement may have lacked a little drama but Orozco-Estrada was clearly enjoying the interplay between his outstanding wind section and the equally capable strings. Having recorded the piece with an American orchestra, the Houston Symphony, he knows the piece well enough to impose sensible phrasing and an attractive give and take on the tempo.

The third movement Scherzo was feather-light in its outer exchanges before the finale took the performance up a level, its first statements probing deeper and the unexpected discords near the end making themselves known, examples of Dvorak’s underappreciated daring with harmony.

After a rapturous curtain call we were given a Viennese encore in the shape of Josef Strauss’s Ohne Sorgen Polka-Schnell Op.271, where orchestra and audience enjoyed a call and response shout. It was slightly out of place with the concert’s mood but judging by the lasting smiles it left Orozco-Estrada had made the right call once again.

Under the Surface at the Proms – About Schmidt

Prom 73, 10 September 2015 – Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov at the Royal Albert Hall

schmidt
Semyon Bychkov conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in Schmidt at the Royal Albert Hall. Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

Symphony no.2 in E flat major
http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/ewbfxj#b068tnhg

‘Some music has to wait before it finds its place in the sun.’

This standout quote comes from an interview in the Proms program with conductor Semyon Bychkov, who conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in this concert of two late Romantic symphonies. The work to which he referred was not BrahmsThird Symphony, which received an occasionally beautiful but ultimately rather lethargic performance in the first half, but the Second Symphony of Franz Schmidt, completed in 1913.

Schmidt’s music has only visited the Royal Albert Hall in full on two previous occasions. The Fourth Symphony, which experienced a revival when Frans Welser-Möst and the London Philharmonic Orchestra won a Gramophone Award for a recording of it in 1996, was heard at the festival in 1998. The relative success of this was followed by the massive sacred piece Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln (The Book of the Seven Seals), which followed a similar path, recorded by Welser-Most in 1996 and performed by the same conductor in 2000.

Schmidt was a wholly suitable choice of composer for the Vienna Philharmonic, who have been revisiting important works in their history this year. Unlike the Brahms third they did not give the premiere of the Schmidt, but the connections with the composer are close. He became a member of the orchestra in 1896, where he played as a cellist – though he did not get on with Gustav Mahler, conductor at the time. Bychkov has championed the Second Symphony with other orchestras, so it made sense to finally bring it to the Vienna Philharmonic. From what I could tell this was their first season performing this or any of his symphonies. So what of the piece itself?

Written on a large scale, the Second clocks in at around 50 minutes. It is in three movements, the large second movement dominating at around half the length of the piece – and it was the centrepiece here. A colourful and richly layered set of variations on a theme, it delights in exploring a number of completely contrasting moods, drawing unusual textures from the orchestra that reveal Schmidt the organ composer. A few of the variations sound uncannily like right hand keyboard figures played at speed, with amazing clarity of colour.

There were clear influences from Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, Richard Strauss and Bruckner – yet the music was nothing like a copy of any of these composers. Instead Schmidt managed to stamp his own personality on the piece, shying away from obvious statements so that the mood was at times strangely elusive, on occasion reluctant to commit to emotion with obvious meaning.

It had operatic qualities, for sure, which could be felt in the ebb and flow of the drama and in the swell of the melodies – but the unusually luminous colours dominated, Schmidt using the orchestra in his own individual way. Here he wrote especially taxing parts for violins and violas, but the crowning glory was the massive brass chorale that appeared towards the end and was resolved without fuss.

Only the Proms could have presented this combination of orchestra and music, and should be congratulated for doing so. It was expertly performed and well received, and should go a long way to giving Schmidt’s music the chance of a revival it deserves. It will be interesting to come back in five years and see if anyone else has taken up the baton from Bychkov.

Want to hear more?

A playlist combining the Second and Fourth Symphonies can be heard here:

Meanwhile for the massive Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln (The Book of the Seven Seals), in a recent recording made for Chandos under conductor Kristjan Jarvi, click on the link below:

This is the last Under the Surface feature of this year’s Proms. There will be more explorations of rare repertoire on Arcana in the coming months, both through recordings and concerts. Stay tuned!