Thursday, November 15, 2007

...with lots of love from Fritz

"He makes it look so easy," grumbled the awe-struck fiddlers in the RFH artists' bar last night. And he did. There's no fuss about Nikolaj Znaider. Towering over the dusky Vladimir Jurowski, who is not short, he strode onto the platform and made the Korngold concerto look and sound...well, Znaider is one of only a handful of violinists who are, to put it bluntly, perfect. Not only is there never a note out of place, but while you listen you can't imagine the work sounding any other way: the logic, the phrasing, the tone are simply - perfection. In this category I'd include only Znaider, Kavakos, Tetzlaff and Repin.

...But what was that about tone? The Korngold Violin Concerto, as all of you assuredly know, opens with the soloist playing a wonderfully mellifluous and heart-twisting melody. My first thought, listening, was 'Wow, the acoustic really has improved in here'. Next thought: 'This bloke is fab.' And no.3: 'What is that thing he's playing anyway?' There was no undue effort about that playing; no forcing of sound, no histrionics, just complete focus and simplicity - hence he could 'make it look so easy'. That violin had to be something very, very special. From bottom G to the highest multiledgered stratospheres the tone soared, unencumbered, as powerful as a Steinway, honey-golden, Korngolden.

There's no point giving a lousy fiddler a multi-million-dollar Italian job to perform on because it won't improve him. The violin does not make the violinist; quite the opposite. Christian Tetzlaff, for instance, has a modern instrument that we hear costs only a modest five-figure sum, but in his hands it sounds like Stradivari's masterpiece [note - it is a very fine violin, it's just not an expensive Italian antique. It is by Peter Greiner and was made just a few years ago.].

Nevertheless, give a violinist like Znaider an instrument like the one he played yesterday - and time freezes while the music comes out. Yes, this instrument is special. It's [drumroll] Fritz Kreisler's Guarneri del Gesu, made in 1741 - the violin on which he gave the world premiere of Elgar's Concerto. And from it there seemed to stream all the wisdom and wonder of two and a half centuries, all the secrets of the instrument's creators, the performers who cherished it and the music it inspired... Goose-bumps? You should have been there. (but hey - you can be, thanks to the radio and the Internet.)

While we were being dazzled by Nikolaj and his magic violin, there was equal bedazzlement from the orchestra with Jurowski. He brought out the intricacies and subtleties of the textures, the flashes of glitter in the velvet, the imagination that's not only lavish and rich but studded with gem-like, fantastical detail. The tempi were spot-on - quick enough to fly, but airy enough to enjoy the luxury. Even the 'Korngolistas' were bowled over; we all felt we'd heard things in the concerto we'd never noticed before.

The rest of the concert involved Zemlinsky's Sinfonietta - in which one could tell how far his star pupil, young Herr EWK, had surpassed him - indeed, the aging Zemlinsky quotes from Korngold's Sinfonietta, written twenty years earlier. And to finish, a stunner of a Shostakovich Sixth.

Now please excuse me while I go and iron my party dress...

NB - You can hear the concert on BBC Radio 3 on Friday evening.