Concert Review: Kevin Zhu unfazed by Shostakovich – Ravel La Valse, Tchaikovsky Symphony No.6 -Orchestra of the Music Makers, Chan Tze Law
RAVEL – La Valse
SHOSTAKOVICH – Violin Concerto No. 1
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique”
Orchestra of the Music Makers
Chan Tze Law conductor
Kevin Zhu violin
Esplanade Concert Hall
Sunday, 21 Jan 2024
Review by Derek Lim
As programmes go, this was a rather heavy-going one, with each work requiring a fair amount of preparation for both performers and listeners. Ravel’s ‘La Valse’ is no light divertissement piece, with a firm and steady hand needed to bring the orchestra through the rather lurid virtuosic waltz and the ever-present feeling of everything just about to fall apart. Chan Tze Law’s treatment was straightforward and not too manicured, with the strings revelling in – and sometimes milking – their glissandi, and just enjoying the Straussian schmaltz. Some untidy passages aside, the piece lurched satisfyingly toward its final passages, though never feeling – as some readings do – as if Ravel was brow-beating the listener into expressionist submission, one vicious, snarling waltz at a time. It was enjoyable, but was the coda just a bit too controlled, too clean?
The first Shostakovich violin concerto, premiered by David Oistrakh, aka. ‘King David’, is a towering work that young violinists have embraced, American violinist Kevin Zhu included. Generally briskly paced, from the start, his 1722 ‘Ex-Lord Wandsworth’ Stradivarius violin, splendid though it was, tended to sound too sweet and bright, even on the G string. In the opening nocturnal lament, the violin needs to really speak in its desolate soliloquy, but despite his best attempts, Zhu fell short of searing heat. Perhaps his seeming inability to bow an ugly-sounding note had something to do with this, but I also felt he never really allowed himself to settle into the music, preferring to maintain a longer line, rather than delineate the movement’s various sections.
Zhu was fully up to the considerable technical demands of the second movement Scherzo which, with its rapid-fire passagework spiked with double and triple stops and octave leaps, played more to his strengths. More heft and crunch would have lent sardonicism to this danse macabre, while the movement’s tutti climax felt more stoic than devilish. With the OMM, Zhu carried this movement to its finish satisfyingly and was rewarded with applause.
The third movement Passacaglia was where Zhu came into his own, OMM and Chan setting an appropriately hostile, desolate soundscape with their introduction. Zhu took the lead here, soaring to heights of anguish and getting to the heart of the music’s plaintive tragedy and desperation. He was fully up to the demanding cadenza, which was beautifully rendered and with not a note out of place in its polyphony, though one would expect nothing less of the Paganini Competition winner. Here, he communicated so much more and showed the story-telling which the first movement was comparatively short of.
This led attacca into the orgiastic Burlesque. Here, Zhu’s chosen tempo remained rather controlled, where others might pursue something more hard-driven, taking greater risks, especially at the coda. Absolutely unfazed by the music’s technical difficulties, Zhu jumped through all the violinist hoops written by Shostakovich and then some, with OMM and Chan keeping up attentively. Did Shostakovich mean, by the work’s raucous ending pages, a true victory or something forced? The audience certainly felt it was the former, and rewarded Zhu and OMM with cheers and applause.
As if to prove that he had stamina to spare, Zhu followed with an encore of the Andante from Bach’s A-minor Partita, a deceptively simple-sounding piece which has the violin accompany itself and requires superlative bow control and concentration.
It was Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony after the intermission that stole the shine of the evening. Thoroughly musically played, Chan favoured slightly fast tempi which nevertheless allowed for nuance, colour and transparency without over-moulding. There were numerous nice touches – for example, the way he went into the development of the first movement immediately instead of preceding it with a slight pause the way some conductors do was fresh and different.
The second movement 5/4 Waltz, with one of the composer’s loveliest melodies, had a beautiful bloom in the strings, with Chan balancing detail against symphonic structure, as he did in the energetic Scherzo. This was hardly played at the fastest pace, and with the clarinettist slightly overwhelmed by the many strings, but there was plenty of energy here. The anguished Finale too, was appropriately plangent, with Chan taking a more stoic than heart-on-sleeves approach. There were many moments to enjoy, but I’ll mention the brass choir, which was in great form in the chorale, and the string basses beating out the faltering heart-beat in the final passages – moving in its restraint.