Rotterdamers on European Tour with All-Russian Programme

27/04/2016

Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev: Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Sol Gabetta (cello), Tonhalle Zurich, 25.4.16. (JR)

Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini
Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No. 2
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 7

The Rotterdam Philharmonic are on central European tour, taking in a number of major Swiss Cities, then Vienna and Brussels. The challenging and interesting programme is an all-Russian one, certainly not one’s standard pick of favourites.

The concert opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy Francesca da Rimini which the composer wrote after visiting Bayreuth “reviewing” Wagner’s Ring cycle. He found the town of Bayreuth unattractive and bewailed the crowd attending the Festival. He was also not much taken by much of Wagner’s music (though its power did affect him) finding many parts of the Ring tedious, a test for his endurance. Those were the days before surtitles. He never actually met Wagner, but he was taken by the music of Wagner’s father-in-law, Liszt. There are influences of Wagner and Liszt to be heard in Tchaikovsky’s work, and the subject matter, taken from Dante’s Inferno, is very much Liszt-inspired.

In Dante’s work, we find Francesca and her lover Paolo in the second circle of hell’s abyss, reserved for the lustful. Here, the couple is trapped in an eternal whirlwind, doomed to be forever swept through the air just as they allowed themselves to be swept away by their passions. The music captures this precisely. Nézet-Séguin jolted us out of our seats in the very first bar as we descended into the nightmares of hell. The piece allowed the orchestra to show its strengths. I would have liked the cymbals played with more gusto, the crashing waves (or perhaps they are the licking flames) were too timid for my taste, but clearly it was the conductor’s instruction.  Nézet-Séguin was tempestuous, a veritable whirlwind on the podium, never at rest, whipping up his orchestra into a frenzy; it was all most impressive. He could not prevent the central section from dragging, but that’s the composer’s fault.

Shostakovich had just suffered a heart attack before composing his Second cello concerto, written (as was his first cello concerto) for Rostropovich.  Khrushchev was no longer in power and repression against Shostakovich had increased.  The opening is long, mournful and desolate. The whole work is more a chamber orchestra piece than one for full symphony orchestra: often the soloist is accompanied only by one or two instruments, often percussion or woodwind. Sol Gabetta put her heart and soul into the piece; I felt the work suited her more than the Elgar concerto which I heard her play at the Tonhalle some while ago. No technical difficulties which the composer put in her path defeated her. The work is by no means easy listening, yet the audience was attentive. It helps that the work gets progressively more listenable, a jaunty movement with some syncopation in the middle movement and a Finale, heralded by a brass fanfare and rustling tambourine, in which the soloist continually repeats the “sighing” motif until she comes to the end: suddenly, seemingly (and probably actually, given all her effort) quite exhausted. Gabetta almost slumped over her instrument, giving some of the concert-goers in the front rows of the Stalls quite a shock I suspect, but she “recovered” to give us a charming encore, from Pablo Casals’ Song of the Birds. (Casals played the piece routinely as an encore to protest against the Franco regime).

Prokofiev’s symphonies are a very mixed bunch. After his charming Haydnesque “Classical” Symphony (No. 1) came his unrelentingly dissonant No. 2. No. 3 has its champions but it is infrequently performed. Nos. 2 and 4 are justly neglected. No. 5 is the one (almost) everyone knows and the most frequently played and recorded. No 6 is its darker twin, and No. 7 is the one Prokofiev wrote just before he died. He was living in poverty, thanks to Stalin, and was told that his final symphony might win a valuable monetary prize, the “Lenin Prize” – if only he could see his way to exchanging the quiet ending for something more cheery, which he did (telling his friends the quiet ending was far preferable).

The work is superficially playful, but with dark undertones. There are many echoes of his ballet music Romeo and Juliet.  Nevertheless, I was not won over by the work. Nézet-Séguin worked his orchestra hard and generally (horns apart) gave a good account of themselves. Full marks however for presenting this somewhat neglected piece rather than taking the easy Prokofiev option, No. 5.

The Rotterdamers left a favourable impression, although it cannot be denied that they are a good regional orchestra rather than a leading orchestra fit for the top flight. The strings need more burnish, the woodwind more character, the brass often fuzzy. There is quite a gulf between them and the Concertgebouw across the tulip fields and up the canal in Amsterdam. Nézet-Séguin has not extended his tenure as Principal Conductor beyond 2018, whilst he will remain at the helm of the Philadelphia Orchestra until (at least) 2023. With his charisma, boundless energy and musicality, he is a catch for any orchestra.

John Rhodes

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