Nikolaj Znaider/LSO, Barbican, London – review

By now, several violinists have turned their hand to conducting – think of Maxim Vengerov; Leonidas Kavakos; Pinchas Zukerman; Itzhak Perlman. But whenever they do, they prompt fresh scrutiny, along with an array of inevitable questions. Is their understanding of the orchestra deep enough to control one? Where have they found time to hone their new craft? And would they find fame as conductors were it not for their existing reputation as fiddle players?

This Barbican concert put Nikolaj Znaider on the spot. Over the past few years the Danish-Israeli violinist has been cultivating a conducting career with ensembles including the Mariinsky Orchestra, the Dresden Staatskapelle and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Here, paired with the London Symphony Orchestra, he demonstrated just how poised a figure he cuts on the podium, but the performance nevertheless yielded mixed results.

The programme celebrated the 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss’s birth; however, any sense of jubilation was muted in the opener, the tone poem Don Juan, Op 20. The orchestra sounded buttoned-up, an impression magnified by Znaider’s stiff, somewhat jerky, conducting style. He seemed more comfortable in the introspective moments, in particular the shadowy conclusion where ethereal wind solos combined hauntingly with featherweight strings.

The impression of delicacy dissolved, however, as violinist Roman Simovic and cellist Tim Hugh stepped up to deliver a gristly account of Brahms’s Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, Op 102. Unevenly matched as a duo – Hugh often eclipsed by Simovic’s tight, bright tone – they made passages of this dense work sound like a technical study, only mining its depths briefly in the tender second movement. And while the orchestra accompanied with precision, it lapsed all too often into mechanical mode.

But all came good in the last offering, during which Znaider visibly seemed to relax. He didn’t attempt to impose an idiosyncratic interpretation on Also sprach Zarathustra, Op 30, nor was this merely a noisy, high-octane romp. Rather, he underlined the music’s natural sense of poetry and momentum, so that the climaxes, when they arrived, felt well-earned. This was a lesson in finely blended sound, sensuousness and vitality in which every member of the orchestra was a joyful, committed participant.

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