International Concert Series in Cardiff: the Opening Night

18/10/2017

Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky: John Lill (piano), St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra / Alexander Dmitriev (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 17.10.2017. (PCG)

Mussorgsky/Rimsky-Korsakov – Night on the Bare Mountain
Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No.2 in G Op.44; Symphony No.4 in F minor Op.36

This opening concert in the St David’s Hall International Concert Series produced quite a few unexpected surprises, not all of them welcome. In the first place, the programme advised us, without any explanation, that the scheduled performance of Tchaikovsky’s comparatively rare Manfred Symphony (regarding which the advance publicity had made considerable capital) was being replaced by the same composer’s Fourth Symphony, hardly an unfamiliar item, and the third time the score had been played at this venue in the last two years. It might have been a desire to keep the programme within reasonable bounds in terms of time, the Manfred being some fifteen minutes longer than the Fourth in the context of a long evening; but, as will be seen, that does not appear to have been the reason either.

The St Petersburg players made a superb presentation of the Fourth, as indeed might have been suspected; but even so they did not erase memories of the performances in this hall by the two Welsh orchestras in the earlier seasons. The brass, perhaps playing with greater force than normal in order to overcome the absence of raised platforms on the stage, were too powerful for the strings at the climax of the first movement development where it leads back to the recapitulation. The return of the tempestuous waltz theme, which should be overwhelming, was instead simply overwhelmed. Nor was the conductor’s sense of pacing infallible. After a speedy traversal of the second movement, the brass passage during the scherzo set out at such a rapid pace that the woodwind interjections, especially from the piccolo, were reduced to an incoherent gabble. I was pleased to see that the woodwind doubling of the trumpets at the return of the Fate theme in the finale was properly in place, but noted that the time-honoured tradition of making two pauses after the climactic tutti passages (which the composer does not ask for in the score) was again allowed to interrupt what surely should be a headlong career of the folk theme towards its disastrous climax. In other words, this performance not only reduplicated some of my concerns expressed regarding Xian Zhang’s earlier deliveries of this score at St David’s, but added some further ones of its own. I also noted that not a few members of the audience, maybe regretting the absence of the promised Manfred, had left at the interval.

Mind you, that could also have been the result of the very long first half of the programme. The orchestra had begun the evening with the standard Rimsky-Korsakov version of Mussorgsky’s perennial favourite Night on the Bare Mountain (and the programme note by Peter Reynolds, who died last year, had been altered to acknowledge the use of the Rimsky edition of the score). This was given an exceptionally exciting reading, and my only quibble might concern the use of a bell in the final section that was a full octave higher than Rimsky clearly intended (he doubles the note with low flutes, so there can be no doubt of his expectations). Nonetheless the vigorous and enthusiastic performance got the evening off to a good start.

The ubiquitous popularity of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto has tended to overshadow the real merits of his second, but John Lill gave a stunning performance here to confound any negative comments. We were given the score at full length, without the disfiguring cuts which marked its first publication in an edition by his former pupil Alexander Siloti which the composer vainly tried to resist. The massive excisions which Siloti made in the second movement removed some of the music’s most impressive passages, and here the contributions from the orchestral violin and cello (assembled like a chamber trio around the solo pianist) made a real impression in the hands of Daniil Meerovich and Sergei Pechatin. There was not much Lill could do to rescue the ramshackle construction of the first movement, which is admittedly over-extended for its content; but he brought a real sense of sparkle to the rondo finale, a movement that may echo the lightweight thistledown of Tchaikovsky’s contemporary Saint-Saëns but also in some curious way anticipates the ebullience of Prokofiev. The audience rightly cheered Lill and his fellow performers to the rafters, but given the length of the uncut score Lill wisely eschewed an encore.

That did not stop the conductor Alexander Dimitriev, having saved ten minutes or more by the symphonic substitution in the second half, giving the audience two encores at the end of the evening. Now I have lost count of the number of times when I have complained on this site about the habit of performers failing to inform the St David’s Hall audience what it is they are intending to play by way of rewarding the listeners for the enthusiasm of their applause. I have complained not only in print but also to the staff at the hall, who assured me that they would urgently request performers to make a suitable announcement before the encore. But both my, and their, entreaties have apparently fallen on deaf ears, as the problem persists, as correspondents to this site have also noted. Since Mr Dmitriev did not have the courtesy to tell us what he and his orchestra were playing, I will refrain from any comment other than to say that the wind tuning in the first sounded suspicious at one point and the castanets were too loud in the second.

The concert formed part of a tour of Britain by the St Petersburg orchestra, who can also be heard in Norwich (22 October), Guildford (24 October), Middlesborough (25 October) and Leeds (28 October). On the final date they are again performing the Tchaikovsky Second Piano Concerto, this time with Peter Donohoe as soloist, and the second and third concerts also feature Night on the Bare Mountain. There may well be other dates, but I found it difficult to determine the full schedule from the internet.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

For more about the International Concert Series click here.

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