On 11 February, getting on for 15 years since its world première in Darmstadt, Detlev Glanert‘s Musik für Violine und Orchester arrived in the UK, in the hands of Stephen Bryant and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of David Robertson.
The first movement, ‘Cantus’, is linked to Orpheus, who, according to legend, was an inspirational singer. Sedate and measured, the violin’s opening phrases—pensive ascending scales—are slowly taken up by the orchestra, leading to a rudimentary pulse. It may seem facile to speak of an ‘awakening’ at the start of a piece, but there is a distinct sense of the instruments flexing their muscles in readiness for what’s to follow. A confident sforzando begins the movement proper, in which the violin assumes an overtly ‘narrative’ mood, occasionally deviating from prosaic mutterings to engage in a flurry of melodic fancies that seems to receive an eager response from the orchestra. All the same, over time it projects a slightly empty and dynamically flat brand of lyricism, somewhat without a cause; it’s easy to be distracted by the delightful touches going on around it, such as the light repeated notes in the woodwind. The orchestra recedes, affording the violin an opportunity to try a little harder, before returning with a more complex underlay that, once again, frequently proves more engaging than what’s supposedly going on on the surface. Overall, though, all the music feels rather ‘cloistered’, only genuinely expansive when the heavier percussion (bass drum and tam-tam) move in to break up the close-knit textures. Following another withdrawal by the orchestra, one starts to wonder if the violin will ever shut up; its incessant outpouring, far from feeling inspired, has by now grown irritating, continuing as it does in an almost monotonous fashion. Furthermore, it’s hard to infer who reacts to whom; do the moments of more captivated utterance in the violin come as a response to encouragement from the orchestra, or, as seemed the case earlier, is it the other way round? That may not seem a vital question, but this uncertainty causes the movement to feel limp and somewhat amorphous.
The work’s central point is a solo cadenza, in which the violin finally decides to sing with imagination, and it leaves one wishing some of that conviction could have been present in the preceding movement, where arguably it mattered more. Titled ‘Spiramen’ (breathing), the cadenza serves as a transition from the world of song to one of more frenetic acrobatics.
Aligned to Eurydice, the mood of the second movement, ‘Passus’, could not be more different: rapid, driving rhythms, with particularly muscular movement in the orchestra’s lower registers. This time the relationship is much clearer; the violin follows the orchestra’s demonstrable lead, skittering furiously through numerous dance-like figurations like one possessed. The movement brings the work’s first really loud moments, but, far from packing a violent punch, they emanate from a more passionate and (in every sense) romantic sensibility; apropos: an absolutely whopping tune (20:48) that almost becomes harsh in its unbridled fervour. But what follows couldn’t be more different: a gorgeously lyrical episode, encouched in light but lush accompaniment (Alban Berg can’t help coming to mind), the violin soaring like an eagle rising on thermals to astonishing heights. Beauty, however, ultimately turns sombre, and as the work moves towards its conclusion, velvety low notes are emphasised in the orchestra, culminating in a sparse coda where the violin projects a very moving valediction, punctuated with soft gongs.