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Leila Josefowicz: Victim of the Hype Wizards?

 

By John Sidgwick


LONDON, 1 August 2002 - It is very rarely that I settle down to write about a concert with a heavy heart, but this is one of those occasions. To be obliged to make fundamental criticisms about a performance by one of the most talented violinists I have ever heard is a sad thing indeed. But the job has to be done.

Last Saturday night's concert in the Mostly Mozart series began with a spirited performance of Beethoven's Coriolan Overture, Op. 62 by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields under the imaginative baton of Joseph Swensen. It was followed by Beethoven's Violin Concerto, the solo part being taken by the 24-year-old American violinist, Leila Josefowicz.

Let me first of all describe Josefowicz's playing in purely violinistic terms. Of prime importance is the fact that she has a bow arm to die for. No matter where she is in the bow - at the point, at the heel, in the middle - the control is always perfect. Moreover, when necessary, the bow changes are carried out inaudibly. As for her use of the upper quarter of the bow, this is nothing short of magic. She can articulate from pianissimo to fortissimo with telling effect in the manner of one of the greatest exponents of this art, Stéphane Grappelli. In addition, she is one of the rare violinists on the circuit to have complete command of martelé (hammered) bowing, one of the fundamental bow strokes that used to be a sine qua non for all violinists but is scarcely-ever heard today. Josefowicz's left hand is in the same league. Dexterity and intonation are beyond reproach and she has a charming, warm vibrato completely free from excess. In short, she is a damned good fiddler (I use the expression in the affectionate slang of violinists the world over), one of the very best.

And now for the Beethoven Concerto.

This opened promisingly. The tutti introduction was played with trenchant expression and I had the feeling that in rehearsal, Swensen had lavished more than usual care on it. When it came to Josefowicz's entry, this was admirably executed and it was only gradually that the flaws in her manner of interpretation became obvious. There is a lot of embroidery in the first movement and there are not all that many purely lyrical passages. In the former, Josefowicz's skilful bowing was constantly interrupted by totally uncalled-for accents accompanied by distracting head-nodding. The same applied in the lyrical passages where the line was invariably destroyed by the same sort of accents and nods. This sort of thing is playing to the gallery and it soon became clear that she was looking upon the concerto as a vehicle for her own personality. When it came to the cadenza, she turned Fritz Kreisler's superb writing into a sort of rhapsody in which the steady underlying tempo was thrown to the winds. The slow movement gave a little less concern, although her execution of the famous, haunting-lovely passages seemed to carry the notice, "Just look how marvellously pianissimo I can play." It was in the last movement that the whole affair came to a head. Her mop of blonde hair was flung around in almost every bar, there was anger and savagery on her face as she launched with ugly tone into heavily-bowed arpeggios - this ugliness was even transmitted to the orchestra's performance. I have to admit to being relieved when the whole experience came to an end.

How have things come to such a pass? I believe that there is a simple answer. Josefowicz has manifestly turned out to be the ideal material for the hype industry rampant. If the London press last week is anything to go by, she makes her way around the world's concert halls to a frenzy of ads about her youth, her beauty, her status as a young mother, anything in fact save her violin-playing. And surely I cannot be wrong in thinking that the hype wizards will be there to advise her on her stage presence and manner of performance.

A terrible pity. She is worth infinitely more.

John Sidgwick writes on music in Britain and France for Culturekiosque.com.

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