BWW Review: The NJSO Performs MENDELSSOHN & SIBELIUS at Bergen PAC
The well-worn, and well-loved Mendelssohn Violin concerto lead off the first half of the program, as Violinist Ning Feng brought great energy and virtuosity to what must be just about the most-performed violin concerto of all time. Mendelssohn broke tradition by introducing the solo instrument right at the beginning of the piece and also by writing out the solo cadenza. Prior to this concerto, cadenzas had generally been completely improvised by the soloist. Mendelssohn's letters have told us that he chose to connect the movements of his concerto into one uninterrupted piece because he detested mid-performance applause - which he viewed as an annoying distraction, and it was a masterstroke.
The instantly memorable first movement, "Allegro molto appassionato," is in a traditional sonata form, and Mr. Feng dug in with vigor plumbing the nuances of virtually every passage - he actually appeared to be cueing the other string players when he was not playing. Mr. Feng attacked the brooding first movement with unusual robustness, an approach that favored energy over elegance.
In the gorgeous Andante, he also delivered the most tender passages in a bright and spirited pace - providing some of his most lyrical playing of the evening.
The famous third movement was something to truly behold. It's not clear if the tempo was chosen by conductor or soloist (or both) but Mr. Feng played with extraordinary speed and equally high voltage. Maestro Slobodeniouk and the rest of the orchestra seemed to be just hanging on for dear life. This kind of exceedingly fast tempo provided some extraordinary thrills and a level of energy rarely felt in performances of the piece, however it also tended to render the melody somewhat shapeless and diminished the beauty of the long lines. It's a trade-off that favored virtuosity over sheer beauty - an interesting choice, but one that the audience enjoyed immensely, favoring Mr. Feng with a long and loud standing ovation.
The last time this reviewer heard the Sibelius Fifth was a sleepy rendition last season by the New York Philharmonic, who truly seemed to be just phoning it in. No such complacency here. Mr. Slobodeniouk began with great delicacy, the horns rolling in like a nebulous, slow-moving fog, obscuring vision but bespeaking something great just in the distance. Sibelius has always been labelled a Wagnerian disciple, but the label is only partially correct. Rather than imitate, Sibelius inhabits, and uses the idioms Wagner taught him to create his own unique sonic landscapes, and it was instantly clear that this conductor understood the language and its nuances.
This reading was not a highly idiosyncratic one, or one that relied simply on brash power; it was a thoughtful, triumphantly sweeping take. Mr. Slobodeniouk found just the right balance of energy and attention to detail, especially in the gorgeous playing of the woodwinds and the lower strings.
In the ecstatic moto perpetuo finale, the composer unveiled one of his most brilliant creations, the chime-like tolling of chords, sitting among the magnificent four horns (that are alleged to have come to Sibelius as he watched a flock of birds pass overhead.) The string section was on fire as the "swan theme," grew out of the breathless rush of the tremolo strings. The true brilliance of the symphony lays here as the composer takes the final movement to a ravishing climax by grandly and gradually slowing that frenetic pace - just the opposite of the effect used in the first movement!) to reveal the majestic emergence of the brass, crying out a theme of astounding grandeur. The volume of the brass was just a tad on the timid side (but that could have been the result of the spotty acoustics of the Bergen PAC auditorium). The final "punctuation" of the piece was delivered with razor sharp bite and put a fitting capstone on a thrilling performance.
As the NJSO season is nearing its completion, they can safely put another check in the win column for this performance.