Hooray for Hollywood at LSO St Luke’s.
Really, they ought to have their own genre: serious concert works by composers who wrote mostly for film. Early/mid 20th century Hollywood, with its desire to add European ‘class’ (pulling in serious theatre actors such as Laurence Olivier, Vivien Lee and Leslie Howard), was full of such composers, many of whom had either emigrated from Eastern Europe, or who came from such immigrant families: Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane); Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Sea Hawk), Max Steiner (Gone with the Wind). Indeed, arguably, the ‘American sound’ made popular by similarly immigrant composers such as Aaron Copland had its roots in Eastern European folk melodies (a fashion for which was sparked by Dvóřak’s ‘New World’ symphony). The concert music of these Hollywood giants is often rich, moody and lavishly orchestrated (betraying their habituation with big-screen big budgets). The Hungarian composer Miklós Rózsa was another such, with three Oscars to his name (one being for the score to Ben Hur), and a rare performance of his Op. 24 violin concerto (written, in 1953, for Jascha Heifetz) was not to be missed.
Part of the London Symphony Orchestra’s free taster series, the performance at Jerwood Hall (LSO St Luke’s) with Roman Simovic (the LSO’s Leader) as the soloist and directed by Simon Rattle was everything that the composer doubtless intended. Simovic played from memory, and applied an intensity to his playing that suggested that he was completely inhabited by the work, whether in the furiously sawed descending passages of the first movement (and its breathtaking double-stopped cadenza), the exquisitely lyrical second movement (ending on a high note of crystalline purity) or the rumbustious romp of the final movement, where contrapuntal complexity, massive rhythmic swerves, and breakneck speed required – and received – fearsome concentration and saw Simovic’s bow skidding across the strings with all the panache of a stunt driver executing a deftly controlled pirouette on a skid pan.
“…the performance… was everything that the composer doubtless intended”
The LSO under Rattle performed – as they always do – to the highest standard, bringing out to the full Rózsa’s highly evocative orchestral timbres: the broody, bluesy clarinet, the broad string melodies, the near comedic leaps from the celesta, the brief, mellow unison tune form the double basses, all contributing to the opening movement’s moody indecision, as it lurched between lyrical D major and angsty D minor. The ‘twilight in the swamp’ atmosphere of the second movement was brilliantly evoked with textures of harp, percussion and celesta, occasional magical duets between solo violin and other instruments, and the threat of a night creature from the brass. And, as with the soloist, the rhythmic challenges of the third movement held no terrors, and were approached with verve and accuracy – the brief gunshot exchange between solo violin and timpani being particularly effective.