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Youth to the Fore at London Proms

By John Sidgwick

LONDON - 4 October 2000 - The past couple of months has witnessed some inspired playing by young violinists in London. During the Promenade Concerts season, the Beethoven Violin Concerto was performed by the Georgian-born violinist, Elisabeth Batiashvili (twenty-one years old) and, on the last night of the "Proms", the American violinist, Hilary Hahn (twenty years old), played Mozart's Concerto No. 4 in D Major with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Batiashvili's luminous rendering of the Beethoven Concerto was mature well beyond her years. Above all, it was imbued with simplicity. Throughout the first movement, she maintained perfect balance and there was matchless ease in her progress through the interlinked episodes of the discourse. When it came to the cadenza (Kreisler's), there was none of the pussy-footing which leads to so many violinists destroying the impetus of the ideas. Batiashvili "went for it" and the audience was carried along so that when the orchestra finally rejoined the soloist, the sheer simplicity of Batiashvili's restatement of the movement's main theme came across as a rewarding moment of peace. Throughout the remainder of the concerto, Batiashvili maintained the same poise and spirituality, adding just the right amount of boisterousness to the closing Rondo. A gloriously satisfying performance.

The Last Night of the Proms is always an exuberant occasion and the audience this year was fully up to standard: lots of cheerful noise, funny clothes, a real sense of enjoyment. Nevertheless, such an atmosphere, with masses of people crowding almost onto the stage, can be more than a little daunting to a soloist performing in the vastness of London's Royal Albert Hall for the first time. In the case of Hilary Hahn, however, no worry at all. She made her way serenely forward, looking for all the world like Vivien Leigh stepping onto the set for Gone with the Wind.

The conductor, Sir Andrew Davis, set a brisk and stimulating pace for the BBC Symphony Orchestra to perform the introduction of the Mozart concerto (this passage was in fact the best part of the orchestra's contribution, for throughout the remainder of the work, their playing lost something of its edge, the understandable result perhaps of their three months hard slog). Hahn made her opening statement with the utmost elegance - any violinist will tell you that this apparently simple passage can be a nightmare to negotiate - and went on to give the sort of performance we have come to expect from her, one that is ideal for the expression of Mozart's world: beautiful but restrained tone, immaculate bowing and fingering, an admirable sense of line in the phrasing. The cadenza was Hahn's own, and at first hearing it seemed somewhat tame; after all, the cadenza is the traditional moment for the soloist to wow the audience. But further hearings have made me understand that her writing is in line with her overall view of the work.

In the slow movement, her sense of line came across with remarkable intensity, leading with complete naturalness to the close, where the violin twice plays an ascending and descending scale of A major. In the whole of Mozart's output, there is hardly a more cogent example of the overall structure of western music, built up as it is essentially of scales. Hahn played these two scales utterly unaffectedly and with heart-stopping beauty.

During the third movement Rondo, she introduced a variety of moods into its contrasting episodes, all of which gradually brought her peacefully into the almost disconcerting pianissimo with which the concerto ends. This being a Bach celebration year, Hahn, as an encore, treated us as to a rounded performance of the Presto finale of his Sonata No 1 in G minor for Unaccompanied Violin - and full marks to her for announcing the piece in a clear voice which carried far into the hall (far too many artists announce their encores so timidly that people in the front row of the audience have difficulty in hearing what is said). Here, Hahn demonstrated that in public performance, she can fully match the superb recordings of Bach's unaccompanied violin music that she made at the age of seventeen.

Gitlis embodies spirit of eternal youth

And now to our third young violinist, Ivry Gitlis, who played the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the London Schools Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre recently under the baton of David Stern. Gitlis is, of course, well into his seventies, but he is someone who embodies the spirit of eternal youth, and it was abundantly clear that his young orchestral companions relished their meeting with a musician who was completely alongside them in spirit but who brought with him a lifetime of experience amongst the legends of violin playing: Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern, Ginette Neveu, Jacques Thibaud…the list is almost endless.

The London Schools Symphony Orchestra will be celebrating in 2001 the 50th anniversary of its foundation. Over the years, it has established a reputation for excellence and their performance at the Barbican in this concert of works by Berlioz, Tchaikovsky and the Scottish composer, Judith Weir, equalled in many respects the sort of standards one expects from the established symphony orchestras. Tchaikovsky's Fantasy Overture 'Romeo and Juliet', firmly directed by Antony Le Fleming, came across with poetry and passion. Today, such has been the progress in the training of string players, that one has come to expect high standards from the strings, even in youth orchestras. But the whole of the wind section displayed exemplary skills; in particular, the principal trumpet, Ewan Parker, played in a manner which would seem to guarantee him a future amongst the best. Judith Weir's composition The Ride over Lake Constance is based on a legend recounted by the German poet, Gustav Schwab, and it calls on the totality of orchestral skills, with much bustling around in the percussion section. The LSSO acquitted itself in style. The second half of the concert opened with David Stern conducting Berlioz's Le Carnaval Romain Overture, and the orchestra responded admirably to Stern's stimulating beat.

Finally, Ivry Gitlis arrived on stage to give a completely personal and highly-enjoyable account of Tchaikovsky's great concerto. Gitlis combines a unique style of phrasing with startling violinistic skills that have defied the passage of time - his downbow martelé staccato arpeggio in the cadenza brought gasps of amazement from the audience. The orchestra, thanks to David Stern's musical intuition, were fully up to the challenge of the soloist's interpretation and Gitlis's young companions will surely remember with gratitude for the rest of their lives not only the concert itself but also the stimulating hours they spent in rehearsal with him.

John Sidgwick writes on music in Britain and France for Culturekiosque.com.

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