Gergiev Crosses National Boundaries with the Oxford Philharmonic

16/10/2017

Rossini, Stravinsky, Mendelssohn: Roman Simovic (violin), Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra / Valery Gergiev (conductor), Town Hall, Oxford, 13.10.2017. (CR)

Rossini William Tell Overture
Stravinsky – Violin Concerto in D major; Firebird Suite
Beethoven Symphony No.4 in A major ‘Italian’, Op.90

In a diverse programme crossing various national boundaries and musical genres, the one conspicuous point of consistency was the dynamic pace and rigour which Valery Gergiev brought to these performances in his guest appearance with the Oxford Philharmonic. With a busy schedule he is well-known for lacking sufficient time for thorough rehearsal, though on this occasion that seemed to a lead to an impulsive urgency during some parts of these performances that worked well with the generally well-disciplined nature of this orchestra. That said, in the solo cello line opening the Overture from William Tell, a few notes were missed and the odd slide was rough, and in the Alpine section of the piece there was also a momentary break or two in the melody sustained by the cor anglais. But when the performance took off there was clear fizz and sparkle, not least in the famous concluding Allegro vivace section.

There followed an energetic, even hyperactive account of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, with bubbling, chattering woodwind propelling the musical discourse with verve and humour. The opening sequences in the first movement were perhaps rather heavy-handed in a movement headed ‘Toccata’, which might imply a light and sprightly touch, but certainly Roman Simovic in the solo violin part glided along effortlessly over that after the initial, infamous wide-stretched chord. He matched the full-blooded character of the Oxford Philharmonic’s performance, but his execution of the solo part also radiated joy and a sense of freedom as he negotiated its wide-ranging, filigree lines which owe more to a Baroque concertante work rather than the great symphonic concertos of the composer’s immediate musical forbears in the 19th century. Although Gergiev’s interpretation in the opening movement tended to be strenuous, and pressed on in the ‘Aria I’ of the second movement, Samovic and the orchestra were in rhythmic accord, certainly making the music sound as though unfolding in an inevitable trajectory, despite its episodic nature. The tension relaxed only a little in the slower ‘Aria II’, and high spirits were maintained in the Capriccio finale, again with busy woodwind and a dynamic lower strings imparting a jazzy atmosphere to the music’s course. The success of the performers’ account of this disparate work was vindicated in the fact that it came across as unified in structure, and underpinned by palpable direction and drive.

Simovic played Ysaÿe’s fiendish solo Sonata No.3 (dedicated by the composer to Georges Enescu) as an encore. He impressed both by virtue of the searching intensity he brought to the music (especially in the opening as it emerges from the instrument’s lowest string) and his effortless handling of the virtuoso passages, in which he carried a clear sense of melodic line over the double-stopping.

A blaze of Mediterranean sunshine was swept in with Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ Symphony. The deliberate rhythmical emphasis on the compound rhythm of the principal theme gave the first movement a flexible purpose and vitality without actually rushing it. Problematically, however, the texture of the music generally felt heavy, and a greater contrast between light and shade would have been welcome, rather than sheer drama alone, as in the development section where the attempts of the principal subject to assert itself were swamped by the powerful, almost vicious swirling of the orchestra around it. But Gergiev certainly drew melodic lines from the Oxford Philharmonic that were lucid and elegant, and some beautifully sustained notes from the oboe heralded the recapitulation.

The second movement procession was brooding and brisk, with barely any difference in tempo registering between its ‘Andante con moto’ marking, and that of the ‘Con moto moderato’ third movement, though the latter was airier and felt more spacious. The Saltarello finale (in the minor key) struck a good balance between forceful rhythmic vigour and logical musical development and momentum, making it, paradoxically, the more controlled movement in the performance of this Symphony, even though its music is the most work’s most wild.

If Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ Symphony is geographical escapism, then Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite represents a journey into mythological fantasy and imagination. The 1919 Suite of extracts digests the main episodes of the ballet scenario which follows Prince Ivan’s discovery of the princesses imprisoned by the evil Kashchei, and his marriage to one of those rescued princesses, all assisted by the eponymous Firebird. This occasioned some marvellously evocative playing from the Oxford Philharmonic, even if perhaps at the expense of the narrative thrust of the Suite’s succession of movements overall. Following the foreboding, gloomy pulsing of the lower strings in the Introduction, the flitting woodwind deftly ushered in air and movement to depict the appearance of the Firebird and her dance. Gergiev made apparent the influence of Debussy in this score (originally produced for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in Paris) with the luscious playing of the strings for the Princesses’ Round Dance conjuring something of the same sultry, erotic atmosphere of the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, whilst the vivid, devastating drama of the Infernal Dance of King Kashchei brought to mind a more concrete version of the violent assaults of the lashing waves in passages of La Mer. After the strange, crepuscular string tremolandi heralding the sunrise of the finale, the new world which is glimpsed with the marriage of Ivan and his Princess was approached with some caution and measure, rather than coruscating warmth or visionary ardour, but there was still sufficient breadth of orchestral sound to make this a musically satisfying conclusion.

Curtis Rogers

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