February 4 2022
Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
Review: William Ruff
A concert packed with nervous energy and acute sensitivity
Less was definitely more at the Royal Concert Hall on Friday night. Only two works on the programme but it turned out to be one of the longest, most eventful concerts for some time – not surprising when the two works in question were Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique.
A great conductor once said that Beethoven’s is the ‘most thoughtful concerto…which needs the violinist to be a great man as well as a great player.’ I wouldn’t like to comment on whether Dutch-American soloist Stephen Waarts has yet become a ‘great man’ (he’s only 26 after all) but he’s clearly a very fine player, as well as being the tallest, slenderest violinist anyone is likely to have seen.
You knew this was going to be a performance packed with nervous energy and acute sensitivity even before he started playing. In fact he played along with the orchestra before the soloist enters, as if the tension couldn’t wait to be released. After that the performance had everything one could wish for: breadth of vision and depth of insight in the long first movement (Beethoven’s longest-ever movement, by the way) culminating in a cadenza of intricate beauty and jaw-dropping difficulty; a deeply probing reading of the sublime central Larghetto; a high-energy, genial and altogether more relaxed final Rondo framed by briefer but equally virtuosic cadenzas.
The conductor was a young Frenchman, Maxime Pascal, a good match for the soloist in terms of musical and physical energy. In his highly demonstrative hands the Hallé packed a mighty punch in the opening movement’s huge tutti sections (with Pascal defying gravity on the podium) whilst also providing the most sensitive accompaniment.
Maxime Pascal introduced the second piece on the programme in one of those French accents which British audiences adore (think Raymond Blanc etc). The story behind Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, even in potted form and delivered at some speed, certainly grabs the attention. It’s all about a love-sick artist pining for the girl of his dreams who isn’t playing ball. He overdoses on opium, has wild dreams, has visions of her at a ball and in the countryside, has a nightmare that he’s killed her and is marched to the guillotine. The final scene is his hellish funeral accompanied by witches and ghoulish creatures. This is not music for the cautious or faint-hearted. And maestro Pascal definitely couldn’t be described as that. He was in his element – and so were the Hallé – as they relished the composer’s hyper-vivid orchestral effects (although it’s a pity that rasping ophicleides were replaced by smoother tubas). The demonic final ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ movement, with its tolling bells, screaming woodwind and grotesque parody of medieval plainchant saw balletic conductor and his unbuttoned players revelling in what must be one of the most exciting symphonic conclusions in all music. No wonder so many in the audience stood and cheered.
Maxime Pascal, conductor
Stephen Waarts, violin