Sokolov perfoms Barber’s concerto

Valeriy Sokolov
Valeriy Sokolov

VALERIY Sokolov is playing Mozart in Macedonia tonight (Thursday), which may account for why we are faced with this Sunday for the next offering in the Sheffield International Concert Season at the City Hall.

The much in demand young Ukrainian violinist popped over there after essaying Barber’s Violin Concerto in Blackburn with the Hallé last Saturday, the work he performs with them in Sheffield on Sunday.

Written in 1939 as a commission for a precocious protégé, the concerto had a rocky beginning as correspondence released in 2010, the centenary of the composer’s birth, revealed.

By way of summary: Having penned the first two movements, Barber showed them to the protégé who was delighted with their lyrical beauty, but asked for a more virtuosic finale in the third movement.

The composer went away and wrote a four-minute, fiendish perpetuum mobile (perpetual motion) getting a student to help with regard to its playability as he wrote it. The protégé showed the two movements to his violin coach who denounced them as insult to his charge’s technical abilities. When the finale arrived challenging them, he deemed it unplayable.

Under pressure to perform a major “surgical operation” on the concerto’s violin part, Barber refused to change a note of the work. He enlisted a violinist with noted sight-reading skills who, after two hours studying the ‘unplayable’ movement, did so without a hitch and piano accompaniment. The work caught on immediately after it premiere and became one the most popular violin concertos written in the 20th century.

Valeriy Sokolov, born in Kharkov in 1986, is already widely travelled with considerable success and a violinist certainly on the rise, as is Sunday’s Jamaican-born conductor of Russian descent, Andrew Gourlay, for whom 2010 was a watershed year.

He was appointed assistant conductor to Mark Elder at the Hallé for two years, won first prize in an international conducting competition, which secured him 29 concerts with orchestras around the world, and was earmarked as ‘One to Watch’ – and a ‘Rising Star’ (in 2011) by leading music magazines.

Although sharing little aural similarity with Barber’s concerto, Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony, which is programmed with it does have a couple of things in common. Both were written at exactly the same time, half a world apart, and are lopsided in construction.

The symphony’s first movement broods listlessly for nearly 20 minutes before two in half the time of brash jollity and a coda of “high-kicking vulgarity imported about equally from Broadway and the Folies Bergères,” as one commentator has put it.

The concerto ends with a last movement that is as breathless as it is brief compared with the near-20 minutes Barber took over largely lyrical introspection in the first two movements, swelling passionate passages aside, although it gets a trifle agitated chromatically towards the end of the second.

Speaking of passionate things, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture opens the concert and there is also a performance of The Walk to the Paradise Garden, the famous orchestral intermezzo from Delius’ opera, A Village Romeo and Juliet.