Weight and Precision from visiting Moscow Philharmonic in All-Russian Programme


Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Prokofiev: Natalia Lomeiko (violin), Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra / Yuri Simonov (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 14.5.2017. (PCG)

Rimsky-Korsakov – Sadko (symphonic poem), Op.5

Shostakovich – Violin Concerto No 1 in A minor, Op.77

Prokofiev – Romeo and Juliet (suite compiled by Simonov), Op.64

When the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra and Yuri Simonov last appeared at St David’s Hall in May of 2014, I commented then that unlike many visiting orchestras in the hall’s ‘international series’ they seemed to be thoroughly at home in the acoustic. That was certainly the case again here; and, as three years ago, the orchestra certainly gave value for money with no fewer than six encores distributed throughout the concert which consequently extended itself to nearly three hours. As before the conductor ostentatiously pulled out his watch between items towards the end, but neither he nor the orchestra seemed in a hurry to depart. It was a pity that, as before in this season’s Sunday afternoon concerts, the attendance was thin. Perhaps would-be listeners are deterred by the difficulties of public transport in the South Wales valleys on a Sunday, and the slightly later scheduled starting time seems only to have compounded the problems with a dribble of members of the audience leaving as encore succeeded encore at the end of the evening.

Three years ago, also, I mentioned the conductor’s flamboyant conducting style which sometimes seemed to leave the players very much to their own devices. In the extended selection from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet which formed the second part of the evening, Yuri Simonov almost seemed to be executing a balletic programme of his own, gesturing with both hands, clenched fists, even giving occasional back kicks with one foot; but the orchestra, clearly thoroughly used to his idiosyncrasies and extraordinarily well drilled, continued to play with superlative weight and precision throughout; the death of Tybalt was hair-raising in its ferocity. The orchestra shunned the use of risers on the platform, which meant that from the point of view of the stalls the heavy brass and percussion were invisible; but the balance and weight remained exemplary, with the characterful woodwind clearly delineated at every point. Simonov’s own choice of movements from Prokofiev’s three suites provided plenty of variety, and the fact that the music continued without a break for over forty minutes did not seem to cause the orchestra the slightest degree of concern or tiredness. The suspended delicacy of the high violins at the end was as heart-breaking as one could wish, and the playing of the bassoons and bass clarinet in particular had the sort of gurgling punch that seems to come so naturally to Russian players.

There was plenty of character, too, to be found in the performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s tone poem Sadko which opened the concert. This piece is not to be confused with the opera of the same title that the composer wrote some thirty years later, although it shares most of the same musical material. The opening section – identical with the prelude to the opera – was shaped with loving attention by Simonov and his players, and the climax of the storm music created a positive whirlwind of excitement. I was particularly struck by the gusli-like twang from the harp which launched this latter section, an appealing touch of characterisation entirely appropriate to the score.

And there was characterisation and to spare in the account of the Shostakovich First Violin Concerto which brought the first half of the concert to a close. This score runs the whole gamut of emotion from wistful nocturnal yearning to heartfelt plangent lament, interspersed with sardonic banter and leading to a cadenza which with gathering force launches itself into a blistering burlesque of a finale. No wonder the nervous composer decided to refrain from allowing the concerto a public performance until after the death of Stalin. There was nothing at all nervous here about the playing of the London-based violinist Natalia Lomeiko, big-boned and assertive when required but even in the quietest passages generating a sense of palpable tension. Time and again I was amazed by the manner in which she managed to ride the tumult of Shostakovich’s orchestration when other soloists might simply have allowed themselves to submerge – and Simonov and his players were certainly holding nothing back. After all this expenditure of energy it was amazing to discover that she still had the energy left to deliver an encore in the shape of a Bach solo movement which had classical poise as well as rock-solid intonation.

That was only the first of a series of encores during the evening, as Simonov and the orchestra at the end delivered to a delighted audience two movements from Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony as well as a more than usually poised account of the March from The Love for Three Oranges; and we were also given two bustling Rimsky-Korsakov showpieces in the shape of the Dance of the Clowns from The Snow Maiden and the celebrated Flight of the Bumble-bee assembled from various passages in The Tale of Tsar Saltan. A couple of times in the past five years I have suggested in reviews that the Prokofiev symphony was clearly written with a large romantic body of strings in mind, despite its ‘classical’ soubriquet; having heard it this way, I am no longer so sure, unless it was that the masking of the woodwind was occasioned by their placement on the floor behind the violins rather than raised above them. At the end of a long and strenuous programme, the orchestra showed not the slightest sign of any fatigue.

By the way I really should mention the programme notes for this concert, provided by Timothy Dowling who had managed to locate some extremely interesting comments by the composers themselves on the principal works in the programme, and even managed to dip his toes into the controversial waters of Shostakovich and politics. Many of the quotations he cited were new to me, and very enlightening they were. I had for example always regarded the original proposal to furnish Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending as an example of ‘Soviet realism’ and state optimism at their most obtuse; and it was interesting to see Prokofiev, while describing the suggestion as ‘barbarism’, pointing out that the main concern was choreographic – ‘living people can dance, the dying cannot.’ (He might perhaps have added that choreographers should be able to recognise that inaction can be as expressive as action.) The programme was also valuable for its informed discussion of the music used by Simonov in his ‘large suite’.

The St David’s Hall International Concert Series has been particularly fortunate this year, and we have had some pretty stupendous performances; but this concert by the Moscow Philharmonic must count among the Cardiff events of the year. For their next visit, they need to be restored to an evening time-slot. Their current tour continues with appearances in Nottingham, Bristol, Basingstoke, Coventry, Sheffield and Perth featuring a variety of programmes.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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  1. Martin Furber says:

    I totally agree. A very memorable concert indeed and yes, excellent programme notes too. I am glad Mr.Godfrey mentions the absence of stage risers. I have seen this happen at other venues occasionally. An orchestral concert, however good the acoustic, should also be a visual and ‘theatrical’ event if it is to engage an audience fully. When half of those seated in the stalls cannot see the orchestra properly this element is negated (I was fortunately seated above the stage). Perhaps it has more to do with the ‘get in’ than purely musical or balance matters.

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