Before the concert the Lord Mayor in a speech requested the audience to support his Appeal, which this year is for the Leicester Children’s Holiday Centre at Mablethorpe. During his short address, in which he also lavished praise on the difference the Philharmonia Orchestra had made to many aspects of music in the city, it occurred to me , particularly in an age in which it is popular, often amongst people who have never raised a hand to help the community, to declare all politicians to be self serving incompetents, that the City Council deserves great praise for the way over 20 years they have steadfastly supported cultural events which serve not only the city but wider Leicestershire as well. Without that support, the city and its environs would be indeed a very much poorer place in which to live.
Now to musical matters and another concert and two more Leicester debuts, those of the Latvian violinist Baiba Skride and, as a conductor, the Spaniard Jaime Martin. The latter has been to the city before but in the role of one of the most eminent flautists of the present day. Now, though, he is carving out a career as a conductor and is attracting plaudits from orchestras world wide. Baiba Skride is no stranger to the Midlands, playing on a number of occasions in that city down the road where her fellow Latvian Andris Nelsons presided until recently.
In the event the reputations they brought with them were shown to be more than justified. Indeed, I would say Baiba Skride’s performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto was one of the most sheerly beautiful that I have heard. Not for her the big warm sound beloved of some performers, which in this concerto can result after a while in a kind of blowsiness, producing a feeling akin to having eaten a box of chocolates at one go. She on the other hand produced a radiantly pure silver sound and often refined that sound down to the quietest of quiet pianissimos. There were some unforgettable moments. In the opening movement there was one such moment when time seemed to stop as one listened to the softest of blendings between soloist , woodwind and horns. The latter were on wonderful form throughout the evening. Similar moments occurred in the slow movement and the gipsy material of the last movement skipped so lightly that the virtuosity was almost unnoticed. The whole performance was, with an ever attentive and lovingly shaped accompaniment, like seeing an old master stripped of its varnish and revealed in its primary colours.
In the rest of the programme the conductor also showed himself to be a fine musician, able to get a crack orchestra to play at the top of its form. I found it pleasing that Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, even though the composer declined to use it for the opera, went at a pace which reflected the drama instead of being presented as some deeply philosophic pondering on humanity. The frisson of the trumpet announcing the arrival of the Minister in the nick of time was finely conveyed and the outburst of joy at the end of the piece was suitably schnell.
After the interval the performance of Sibelius’ 5th Symphony seemed to take some time to get in the groove. It was being played well enough but it was coming across as rather matter of fact . The characteristic Sibelian atmosphere of brooding mystery and threatening granite like power wasn’t being quite communicated, to this listener at least. However, with the introduction of the first of those wonderful swinging themes on the brass so characteristic of this symphony, something seemed to click and from then on the performance really gripped. There was heroic power in the brass and the strings took on a dark intensity which sent shivers up the spine. Don’t go into the forest, was the message conveyed. In the slow movement the moments of cool and graceful beauty were finely conveyed by the woodwind and the guest appearance of the retired Andy Smith ensured that the timpani’s role in the work’s grandeur and drama was fully realised.
However, the standout moment for me was in the last movement and the return sotto voce of the scurrying theme for full strings with which the movement opens. It was truly amazing the extreme pianissimo achieved by such a body of players, and the way it almost disappeared and then came back, building to one of most overwhelming near endings in symphonic music, was unforgettable. I say ‘near endings’, since, of course, we have at the actual end those series of enigmatic, brusque chords, almost waiting to catch out the audience. The conductor during the pre –concert talk told of a performance given in Athens under Colin Davis some years ago, in which the pause after each chord brought premature applause until, by the real end, when applause was merited, there was none since none dared any longer to put their hands together. I am delighted to report that Leicester, it would appear, knows its Sibelius rather better than the cradle of Western Civilisation. Certainly Jaime Martin does and we should indeed look forward to his return.