The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Violinist Augustin Hadelich and the Madison Symphony Orchestra triumph in an unforgettable and moving performance of Prokofiev’s Second Concerto.

January 24, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

I doubt I will hear a better performance of any concerto in this season,or many others, than I heard at the Sunday afternoon concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Several reasons account for that.

One reason is that the concerto was the Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63, composed in 1935 by Sergei Prokofiev (below), which – hard to believe but true – has never been performed before by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

It is one of the great concertos, the masterpiece concertos, of the 20th century. It is simply a terrific work that especially in the slow second movement, which opens with a solo aria underpinned by pizzicato plucking, becomes a sublime work, one that brought The Ear to tears with its poignant and breath-taking beauty. (Listen to it at the bottom.)

A second reason is that the young violinist Augustin Hadelich (below), who last played the popular Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Wisconsin Chamber orchestra two years ago, was the soloist. At 28, he is not only a complete violin virtuoso, but also a deep musician who puts the music first, never himself or the violin. He has a great future facing him, and we can hope it is a very long one.

The third reason was that the conductor, MSO music director John DeMain (below) was on exactly the same wavelength as Hadelich and offered him an accompaniment that was precise and soulful at the same time.

Listening to Hadelich is to hear the emergence of a great talent. So I add Hadelich to the short list of great young violin talents the MSO has been booking. Hadelich is right at the top of the list, along with the Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud (below) who has turned in astonishingly musical versions of such warhorses as the Sibelius and Tchaikovsky concertos.

I have long argued that Prokofiev was the Mozart of the Soviet Union while Shostakovich was its Beethoven. I could develop that argument at length. But on Sunday the music made the argument for me.

Prokofiev can be percussive, but more often he has a transparency, an elegant simplicity and a gift for melody that reminds one of Mozart.

As one veteran listener remarked to me, “I’m not familiar with the concerto, but I found I could really understand it and make sense of it on the first hearing.” Is there a better definition of classicism? Unfortunately, there is a lot of modern and contemporary classical music you cannot say that about.

Both DeMain and Hadelich played with such conviction and dedication that they took you inside the piece. From the opening strain of the solo violin to the closing measure of the energetic and march-like perpetual motion, toccata-like rondo that brought a standing ovation, the Prokofiev concerto enthralled the audience.

I am betting it will not be another 80 years or so before we get to hear this work again at an MSO concert. At least I certainly hope not. What Prokofiev’s Third Concerto is to the piano, his Second Concerto is to the violin – a glorious masterpiece of the modern repertoire that is also a sure-fire hit with audiences.

As for Hadelich, he is the real deal – an heir to such violin virtuosos as Jascha HeifetzDavid Oistrakh and Itzhak Perlman. He has tone and power, lyricism and virtuosity. Even the encore he played, the famous Caprice no. 24 by Paganini (below is the opening of the score) with the familiar theme that Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Lutoslawki among others used for variations, sounded more musical than I have ever heard it in live or recorded performances.

In short, Hadelich goes for the music, never the glitz or schmaltz. It is true in his live performances and it is also true of the recordings I have heard. It makes you wonder if the severe burns he suffered in an accident at 15 and took two years to recover from didn’t deepen his maturity and his underlying appreciation of music. But, then again, maybe that is too easy an explanation for his superlative talent.

The other works on the program were extremely well performed, but nonetheless seemed to pale just a little bit in comparison to the superlative and stirring Prokofiev.

Debussy’s “Iberia” was a fine curtain-raiser, especially on an afternoon when we needed a bit of warm and sunny Spain to melt the freezing rain that had begun to fall with its color and rhythms. I often think DeMain is more at home in Ravel, who had a better sense of structure. But he did justice to modernist Debussy in this reading.

The last half of the concert consisted of Tchaikovsky’s early Symphony No. 2 “Little Russian” (or the “Ukrainian,” as Big Russians liked to pejoratively call it) was given a sparking reading by the MSO. That the score is often repetitive to a fault is only to criticize Tchaikovsky’s usual method and to remark that for most listeners, his first three symphonies can’t really compete with the maturity of his last three. Most listeners prefer the Fifth or Sixth (the famous “Pathetique”), while my vote goes for the Fourth.

Still, from the very beginning of his career Tchaikovsky (below) demonstrated a great facility for memorable melodies and appealing, accessible orchestration. (Am I the only  person who thought of Mussorgsky’s popular and dramatic “Great Gate at Kiev” from his “Pictures at an Exhibition” during the opening measures of the last movement of the Tchaikovsky?) Those aspects, present even in this early symphony, made for a solid and stirring performance that wrapped up an outstanding program that will, for me, remain one of the peaks of the current MSO season.

Of course, other critics had other things to say, and it can be fun and illuminating to compare us.

So here are some links to other reviews:

Here is John W. Barker’s review for Isthmus:

And here is Lindsay Christians’ review for The Capital Times and 77 Square:

Here is Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine’s “Classically Speaking” blog:

And here is Bill Wineke’s for WISC-TV’s Channel 3000:

Play critic yourself.

What did you think of the MSO concert?

Of the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2?

Of violinist Augustin Hadelich?

The Ear wants to hear.

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