Has political correctness infiltrated the pages of concert programmes? “These days it’s easier to appreciate the piece as ‘different’ rather than simply ‘sub-standard’,” we were informed in the note for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s performance of Schumann’s violin concerto, as if concepts of good and less good are no longer allowed when discussing music.
Let’s just say, then, that Schumann’s concerto is problematic, and that over the 84 years since it was exhumed from the archives in Leipzig and given its belated premiere, many violinists have attempted to solve those problems. But if there’s anyone today who can show that the work belongs in the pantheon of 19th-century violin concertos, it’s surely Isabelle Faust, who was the soloist for the OAE’s performance, with Antonello Manacorda conducting.
Faust certainly tried. As always her playing was a marvel of nimble brilliance, effortlessly navigating the thickets of figuration to which Schumann’s violin writing often resorts, and making the most of the touching simplicity of the concerto’s slow movement. But she could do nothing to mitigate the rambling repetitions in the first and last movements, or their sheer lack of thematic variety, for all her efforts at gilding them.
Manacorda tried just as hard to bring life to the routine orchestral accompaniments. His care over textures had been demonstrated right at the start of the concert with his refined, almost stealthy kindling of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, and, after the concerto, he lavished the same attention on the details of Schumann’s Second Symphony, without ever sacrificing any of its energy, exuberance or lyrical intensity – played on gut strings, with minimal vibrato, the opening of the Adagio was heart-stoppingly beautiful.
Manacorda is apparently being talked about as a possible successor to Antonio Pappano at the Royal Opera House; on this evidence he’s certainly a conductor who will bring something fresh to even the most familiar music.