Beethoven Violin Concerto in D major Op.61 (1806)
Pejačević Symphony in F# minor Op.41 (1916-17, rev. 20)
Vilde Frang (violin, below), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo
Barbican Hall, London
Friday 26 November 2021
Written by Richard Whitehouse. Pictures (c) Mark Allan
The latter-day uncovering of music from the past two centuries by female composers has not always been determined by its intrinsic quality yet, on the basis of this evening’s account by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Symphony by Dora Pejačević was certainly worth revival.
Born in Budapest and growing up within the Croatian nobility, Pejačević (1885-1923) early on evolved an idiom whose pivoting on the cusp between late-Romanticism and Modernism was well suited to those large-scale instrumental and, latterly, orchestral works that dominate an output curtailed by her death – from kidney failure – at just 37. Certainly, there is nothing at all cautious about her Symphony in F sharp minor, composed during the later stages of the First World War and a piece audibly indebted to though never merely beholden to its times.
Surprisingly, the opening movement is in most respects the weakest – its main Allegro failing to sustain the impact of its impressive slow introduction (Brahms’s First Symphony the likely precursor), in terms of questing harmonic trajectory or purposeful momentum, once the lyrical if rather flaccid second theme has taken hold. The development relies more on rhetoric than motivic ingenuity over its too brief course, followed by an awkwardly modified reprise then a coda whose glowering intensity reveals an intermittent tendency to overscore for the brass.
Such failings are largely absent from what follows. Centred on a soulful melody given to cor anglais, the Andante builds methodically while irresistibly to its pathos-laden climax before subsiding into the lower reaches of the woodwind; while the Scherzo (better placed second in context) utilizes tuned percussion to underpin a progress whose rhythmic vitality is unusual in symphonies from this era. The final Allegro revisits the first movement’s emotional angst, but its relative succinctness on the way to an ultimately cathartic peroration feels securely judged.
Such, at any rate, was the impression left by this performance – the BBCSO responding with alacrity to Sakari Oramo’s belief in music scored, for the most part, with no little imagination for forces including triple woodwind, six horns and four trumpets. If not the masterpiece some might like to believe, Pejačević’s Symphony is evidently worth revival as frequently as, say, that by Korngold – a potent of what this composer would surely have gone on to create. That she enjoyed only a short-lived maturity need not detract from extent of her legacy as it stands.
Despite sustaining a hand injury, Vilde Frang took the stage in the first half for a reading of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (replacing that by Stravinsky) as brought the genial and restive aspects of its expansive first movement into effortless accord; after which, the variations of the Larghetto were exquisitely delineated then the humour of the final Rondo shot-through with an incisiveness through to the emphatic close. Among the most astute of accompanists, Oramo drew felicitous playing from the BBCSO’s woodwind and a reduced string-section.
As encore, Frang gave an eloquent take on Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser, Haydn’s theme for the variations in his ‘Emperor’ Quartet. Hopefully those still trying to reconcile the movement-headings of the Pejačević as given erroneously for the Beethoven were not unduly distracted.
For the repertoire in this concert, listen to the Spotify playlist below: