Steckborn, Switzerland: Saturday 15 May 2004
What could be more inviting than a balmy late spring evening in a sleepy, pretty little town, squeezed along a Swiss lake, listening to one of Raff's major works in an impassioned performance?
Over the years the Bodensee Festival, held annually in venues peppering Lake Constance, has programmed several of the master's works and this year saw the Violin Concerto No.2 played on consecutive nights in the Swiss towns of Rorscharch and Steckborn. For each concert the soloist was the young Icelandic virtuoso Judith Ingolfsson, accompanied by the 50-strong Bohemian Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra under Raff veteran Urs Schneider.
Steckborn's bright and welcoming Evangelical Church unfortunately proved to have a disappointingly muddy acoustic once the evening got underway, obscuring many of the attractive details which the fine Czech band produced. Mozart's Prague Symphony, with which the concert began, nonetheless received a vigorous and attractive reading. The contrasted driving momentum and relaxed cantabile of the first movement, giving way to a graceful Andante, before the quicksilver charm of the Presto finale closed an enjoyable, unpretentious performance, taking its cue from Schneider's laconic direction.
The slight form of the soloist, dressed in blazing red, dominated the platform from the moment she arrived to play the Raff. The second the opening tutti finished, she launched into a full bloodied and dramatic reading which demanded respect. It was clear that Ingolfsson took Raff's programme for the work seriously. In the opening Allegro "life's frail barque" was clearly foundering, there was no doubt that "the storm rages". The orchestra matched her measure for measure. Seldom can Raff have been played in modern times with such passionate commitment, and what a joy it was! Moments of relaxation were few, Raff's memorable themes tumbling one after another as the movement stormed to its close.
Once again taking her cue from Raff's programme, Ingolfsson avoided treating the Adagio as an extended serene episode. The first half, leading up to the central orchestral climax, was dark and threatening - despair and suffering clearly were the emotions which the broad central orchestral climax dispersed. Replacing them, the tenderness and solace of the second half came as a huge and effective relief. The close was as serene as one could wish for.
As Raff intended, "joy and pleasure" dominated the final Allegro. Here Ingolfsson's hell for leather approach let her down in a couple of places, when poor intonation featured in the helter-skelter dash to gaiety. Raff's finales can come as disappointments, but this came over as a fittingly joyous close to a work of real stature.
Ingolfsson's great platform presence, intelligent interpretation and committed playing earned her a standing ovation, which was clearly heartfelt. True, there was room for more sweetness in her performance and, once or twice, her risk-taking didn't come off. The orchestra's contribution seldom fell below mezzo-forte and the first flute in particular was often too loud - but these are minor and carping criticisms. It was a joy to hear Raff played with all the intelligence and passion usually reserved for his more famous contemporaries - and sounding their equal as a result.
Following the interval, Schneider's take on Schubert's good-natured 6th. Symphony emphasised its playful, dancing character. After the drama and tension of the Raff, one might be excused for finding Schubert's light-hearted amiability something of a let down, well played though the work was.
Miss Ingolfsson is a name to note for the future - Raff could do with more interpreters like her.