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Review: Nikolaij Znaider plays Sibelius; LA Phil Gives U.S. Premiere of Górecki Symphony No. 4

Laurie Niles

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Published: January 20, 2015 at 1:35 AM [UTC]

What is the point of the Sibelius Violin Concerto on a Sunday in mid-winter -- in Los Angeles, with the weather a cheerful and sunny 78 degrees?

Nikolaij ZnaiderThis question came to mind as I watched Nikolaij Znaider perform the work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Andrey Boreyko. The concert also featured the U.S. premiere of Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 4, "Tansman Episodes," and a performance of a work by Alexandre Tansman himself, written upon the death of his friend, Igor Stravinsky, "Stèle in memorium Igor Stravinsky."

I sat in the very back of Disney Hall, the second-to-last row, so high that there's even a slight sound delay. What a perspective one gets from this perch -- a sense of seeing and hearing all as a whole; like a view of planet Earth from space.

As I hinted, Znaider's was a Sibelius for a sunny day, and not just because of the weather outside. Perhaps it was due to the old-world sweetness of his violin, the 1741 "Kreisler" Guarneri del Gesù, or the warmth of his vibrato, or the unfaltering energy in his stage presence. But Sunday's Sibelius didn't have that icy edge, and somehow I didn't mind at all (the person next to me did, it just wasn't in line with how he thinks of Sibelius!) I thought about the last time I heard Sibelius at Disney Hall, an excellent performance by Joshua Bell. Afterwards, in a room downstairs, teachers were using the Socratic method on a room full of California schoolchildren to get them to come up with the idea that this music is about winter, about an icy, still, Nordic landscape. Innocently, they kept answering that the music made them think of "Spring?" Noooo...."The desert?"....Noooo.....

Does it have to be about the bleakness of winter, every time? Is a little spontaneity okay? My hearty reaction Sunday was "yes." In Znaider's hands it was pure and beautiful, unhurried in its virtuosity, with dizzying runs going by in one sweep and the dramatic tension sustained throughout. The second movement particularly was not going to put any frost on the windows; it was rich and even a bit soupy in spots. I suspect he had to work to project on that del Gesù (all the way up to me in the space station), but he succeeded, and I was rapt. The fast-moving lopsided dance that is that last movement unfolded with ease, Znaider completely given over to the task, fully committed and in the moment.

He played the Sarabande from Bach's Partita in D minor as an encore.

Laurie and Nikolaij Znaider
Laurie with Nikolaij Znaider, after his performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the LA Phil.

The Sibelius was actually second on the program; first was the three-movement piece by Alexandre Tansman, an appealing and well-edited work, in honor of Stravinsky. The first movement was chime-y and spooky, with a few washes of piano that made me think of Stravinsky's "Petrouchka." The second movement was more frenetic and punctuated with barking horns and xylophone. As John Henken wrote so eloquently in the excellent program notes: "It is in his orchestration -- particularly the hard glitter of glockenspiel, xylophone, bells, celesta and piano -- that Tansman most obviously honors his friend." The muted brass and high violin soli in the third-movement "Lamento" brought to mind little forest creatures, coming out of their cubbies. It occurred to me that the Disney animators probably would have as much fun with this piece as they did with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and then later Firebird in their various iterations of "Fantasia."

I have a feeling that this concert's main draw was Górecki's Symphony No. 4, kind of a sequel to his break-out hit from the 1990s, The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, written in 1972. "Break out hit"? Yes, a 1992 recording of this symphony, featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta, sold more than a million copies and climbed the pops charts in Europe. (I played the work in an AIDS memorial concert in the 90s, a very moving experience.)

Symphony No. 4 was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Southbank Centre, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Zaterdag Matinee concert series at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, according to the program notes. The symphony was to be premiered in 2010, but Górecki fell ill and died that same year without completing the orchestration. He left behind a piano score, with detailed instructions, from which his son, Mikolaj, completed the work. It was premiered in April 2014, with Boreyko conducting the London Philharmonic.

The work, in four movements, begins in dark harmonic territory, with strings in parallel motion, punctuated by drums, noisily churning out a much-repeated motive -- I'd call it "large-scale minimalism." Onto this was eventually layered a loud and painfully discordant organ chord. I thought that, like the train-roar of a tornado tearing out the foundation of my house as I huddled in the cellar, the organ chord would move on, but it persisted straight overhead, long after my desire to see it gone. At last it resolved, and suddenly all noise was reduced to piano and xylophone. I was metaphorically peeking my nose back out of the cellar when again the organ slammed back in jarringly with the same chaotic chord. Then came another respite, with quietly gloomy celli, and again the organ reared its gargantuan head, stressfully. This happened for some time, during which there seemed to be nothing in between full-on panic and near-dead static, gloomy and lacking in pulse, for the duration of the second movement.

The third movement brought more forward movement, awake and repetitive. Then came a piano-cello duo, slow, simple and lovely with just a little dissonance around the edges. Eventually the solo violin joined in this circular, hypnotic episode. The fourth movement started with a sense of purpose and triumph, with some interesting syncopation and falling chromatic figures in the strings. The end echoed the beginning, complete with the return of the monster chord, which had at least a few people adjusting their hearing aides. After a thundering drum roll, it resolved.

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From Laurie Niles
Posted on January 20, 2015 at 4:46 AM
Really interesting to read the other reviews of the Górecki (and Znaider), here they are:

Posted on January 21, 2015 at 2:39 AM
How come the great fiddle players are all tall men and all the violists are little women?;-)
From Peter Charles
Posted on January 24, 2015 at 4:28 PM
Well, the Sibelius I always think of as a red hot concerto, probably because it was almost certainly Heifetz performing on record, that I first heard. He makes it sound like every note is on fire. I also liked a pretty hot performance from Ida Haendel . I do not see it as a cold, icy concerto! I seem to remember Ginette Neveau also played with fire.

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