Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Severance Hall
February 8

A light touch with the mainstream repertoire.

Remember the kid in high school who could do everything? Class president. Star athlete. Homecoming king. And, needless to say, tall and handsome – like Nikolaj Znaider, the Danish violinist and conductor who stood in for Pierre Boulez at Severance Hall this past weekend. While no one can fill Boulez’s shoes, Zneider cut a charismatic and persuasive figure handling an engaging program both from the podium and in the soloist spotlight.

Znaider, 38, comes with impressive bona fides. He studied with Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard and Boris Kuschnir in Vienna and won his first international competition at the age of 16. He has performed with orchestras throughout Europe and the U.S., recorded chamber music with Daniel Barenboim and Yefim Bronfman, and founded a music academy to nurture young talent. In 2010 Valery Gergiev took Znaider under his wing at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, where he is now principal guest conductor.

Znaider brought a fabulous instrument – a 1741 Guarneri del Gesú once owned by Fritz Kreisler, the second priceless violin heard in Cleveland last week (see Gil Shaham review below). It has a dark, rich tone that brings to mind aromatic coffee, clean and compressed in Znaider’s hands. The sound was an elegant complement to the orchestra’s silken strings, which sounded as radiant as ever in Mozart’s Violin concerto No. 3. The piece is an early work that Znaider presented in straightforward fashion, restricting his flourishes to a bit of interplay with the orchestra in the second movement and a playful spirit in the third.

Playing it straight.
How does one play and conduct at the same time? Znaider stood on the floor with a chamber-sized ensemble from the orchestra, setting the tempo to start the piece and keep it moving, intermittently turning to face the audience for his solos. If his conducting was minimal, it was all that was needed. The orchestra members have this music in their DNA, and were ready with a lush, lilting backdrop for Znaider’s beautifully fluid performance.

Given an opportunity to take the podium and focus on conducting, Znaider showed a deft hand and light touch with Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4. The work is not terribly complicated, but it has some fancy turns in the second movement that he handled adroitly, rolling each phrase neatly into the next. Some fireworks at the end provided a satisfying finish, but what most impressed was Znaider’s feel for the small, bright accents that run throughout the piece. They flickered with color and energy, adding zest to this well-worn work.

Under Znaider’s baton, Elgar’s Enigma Variations had the same brio, along with a notably sunny disposition. The piece requires a large orchestra, and Znaider showed that he’s capable not only of handling sprawling instrumentation, but pulling fine touches out of it – delicate strings, prancing woodwinds, carefully calibrated horns and boisterous percussion. Setting a smart pace for the procession of personality sketches, he gave a dynamic, full-blooded account of another familiar staple.

This was probably not Znaider at his best. Juggling soloist and conductor roles in a single performance is a serious challenge for even the most experienced performers, much less taking them on as a substitute. Still, Znaider’s playing left more than a tinge of regret at missing him perform Bartók’s Violin concerto No. 2 with Boulez, as originally scheduled. And his conducting showed a sophisticated understanding of how to work with an orchestra and capitalize on its strengths.

The homecoming king was never so versatile or gracious. Here's hoping Znaider comes back with his fab violin, and the Bartók, soon.

For more on Nikolaj Znaider: http://imgartists.com/artist/nikolaj_znaider1

Top photo: N. Razina

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