Review: Sibelius’ Violin Concerto

Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova gives an astounding performance of Sibelius.

by Stephanie Eslake on November 24, 2014

Federation Concert Hall, Tasmania
November 22, 2014

It’s fairly easy to impress, but it takes a lot more to astound. Such was the case with Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova in Saturday night’s performance of the Sibelius’ Violin Concerto with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.

Before Ibragimova stepped on stage, the TSO played a welcoming Symphony No 35 Haffner by Mozart. As per the composer’s original request some three centuries ago, the work was performed “with great fire” – the first movement’s jolting octave theme developing into a brilliantly big ending. It was a touch bass heavy – and while this may have been the hall, the players could have compensated.

The second movement followed with Mozart’s typical cheekiness, and third was bursting with energy, which – to my horror – was interrupted by a lady yawning in the row directly behind me. For the Finale (Presto), the timpani built a momentum which, during its subsequent absence, was well sustained by the tight flourishes of the strings. A number of grinning musicians could be spotted on stage during this one, and they certainly deserved to feel that delight.

Many musicians left the stage to be replaced by a harp and piano for Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. This unsettling piece was extremely well balanced, the layered strings executed with scarcely any vibrato. The tension could be cut with a knife, proving itself a truly effective performance. The Allegro showcased the true musicianship of conductor Marko Letonja’s group, where everyone moved flawlessly together across a substantial range of articulations. Sometimes light, sometimes primitive, the strings successfully made my skin crawl through Bartók’s abundance of musical ideas. Letonja appeared utterly exhausted after (and rightly so) but there was more to come.

The third movement has been well popularised by Kubrick’s film The Shining (1980), and its abrupt and unpredictable nature further highlighted the musicians’ control. The final Allegro molto was deceptively jolly at its opening, but unravelled soon enough into a violent frenzy. Looking very pleased with himself, Letonja appeared far more animated and in his element than he did in the still-impressive Mozart.

In promoting their concert, the TSO described the Sibelius as “a deeply emotional work”. They certainly didn’t set themselves a challenge that couldn’t be met. Ibragimova made her entrance in a simple and flowing black dress that would bend and spring under her kneees through her fiery performance of the Violin Concerto.

With appropriate restraint, the TSO could hardly be heard as it allowed Ibragimova to commence her beautiful melody. Clean tones which only hinted at vibrato were crafted into rapid successions of notes. The wild, arpeggiated opening was a performance within itself, which may be why Sibelius considerately allows the musician a few moments rest. Momentarily coming to the fore, the orchestra was full bodied, sensitive, dark, and rich. Ibragimova’s Adagio di molto was interpreted with sensitivity and far heavier vibrato than the first movement, and the Allegro ma non tanto treated as light as a dance. Throughout the work, the orchestra was committed to the violinist’s ravaging energy, and – unsurprisingly – Ibragimova received what I’d imagine to be one of the many standing ovations of her career.