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MUSIC REVIEW : Davies' Violin Concerto in Premiere

January 30, 1988|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

Andre Previn opened the concert by the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Thursday with a crisp and snappy performance of Brahms' "Academic Festival Overture."

After intermission he offered an unusually slow, carefully detailed, occasionally ungainly but essentially expansive performance of Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony.

The big news at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion came, however, between the basic Bs.

It came with the American premiere of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' Violin Concerto. Commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic, the piece was written for Isaac Stern in 1985. Previn and his British orchestra introduced it at Davies' St. Magnus Festival on the Orkney Islands of Scotland a year later.

Instant success lingers about this bleak, brooding, pictorial concerto like a happy halo. The New York Philharmonic will perform it soon, and it already has been recorded--beautifully--by Stern and Previn for the CBS label.

The music brings out the best in a beloved violinist who, when confronted these days with more conventional challenges, doesn't always play up to his own lofty standard. The basic language is subtly modern, yet it respects the ancient formulas and makes no formidable demands on a mass audience.

Davies states in a program note that the style of the concerto was predicated on the locale of the first performance, a 12th-Century cathedral wafted "between the tumults of North Sea and Atlantic Ocean." That certainly explains the recurring, varying impressions of waves and gulls, the beguiling traces of an archaic folk idiom and the muted aura of medieval mysticism.

It also may explain textures that sound sparse in a concert hall but no doubt echoed their own resonance from wall to wall in the ancient church.

The concerto, in any case, is more than a \o7 piece d'occasion.\f7 The historical frame is resolutely classical. Between the dance figures and nature references, one finds arching melodic lines, formal developmental structures and reasonably ornate cadenzas. Unlike Davies' often convoluted, progressive, psychologically complex theater pieces, the rhetoric evolves here in harmonic serenity, in clarity of expression and surface simplicity.

Most affecting, perhaps, is the initially languid Adagio which climaxes in an eerie, nervous exchange between the violin and brass. The Allegro finale begins with soft-spoken agitation. A reel quotation pops up. Bagpipes seem to loom on the sonic horizon. But the valedictory statement--a whispering diminuendo for the protagonist--reaffirms the fundamentally pensive impulse.

Stern played the evocative solos with purity of tone and security of pitch, with abiding suavity and a fine sense of the storm that always threatens the calm. Previn provided a poised and eloquent orchestral frame.

This was an evening of Orcadian revelation.

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