Symphony Orchestra of India, First UK Tour

22/02/2019

Rimsky-Korsakov, Saint-Saëns,Weber: Marat Bisengaliev (violin), Symphony Orchestra of India / Martyn Brabbins (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 21.2.2019. (PCG)

Martyn Brabbins (c) Benjamin Ealovega

Weber – Overture, Oberon J.306
Saint-Saëns – Violin Concerto No.3 in B minor Op.61
Rimsky-KorsakovScheherazade Op.35

We have become well accustomed over the past thirty years to the superlative technical standards which Asian orchestras achieve, not only in the countries that formerly were part of the Soviet Union, but also in China, Japan, Singapore and so on. But in this avalanche of emerging talent, the Indian sub-continent and the Arab world have tended to stand somewhat aside. A few years back I reviewed for this site a DVD documentary that chronicled the degree of political interference which had effectively sabotaged an attempt to revive the performance of classical Western music in Iran. Politics fortunately do not rear their ugly head in India, but the existence of an elaborate network of traditional Indian classical music has obviously cast a shadow over what might have been regarded as a relic of the imperial past. The Symphony Orchestra of India was only formed in 2006 and remains not only India’s first but also its only professional orchestra; and this concert was part of its first UK tour.

The standard of the playing, it should be said at the very outset, was terrific. Weber’s Oberon overture sits on an uneasy cusp between the classical and romantic models, and a fine line has to be drawn between interpretations that either underplay the drama or whip it up into a sense of excitement that gives the music as pseudo-Wagnerian ring. The players here, under the experienced hand of Martyn Brabbins, got the delicate balancing act just right even when the trumpets threatened to drown out the excited and precise violin figurations. This discrepancy, probably the result of unfamiliarity with the hall, was fortunately very much an exception in a concert which otherwise was finely tuned and in which the woodwind solos came through without the need for any pushing.

The orchestra’s music director from the outset has been the Kazakh violinist Marat Bisengaliev. Elsewhere on this tour he is playing the popular Bruch violin concerto. Here – possibly bearing in mind that we had heard Maxim Vengerov playing the same work in this hall less than nine months ago – we were given the third concerto by Saint-Saëns. It is an attractive work which at the same time seems over-long for its musical content and oddly lacking in substance as it trundles along its amiable way. Bisengaliev played it with real conviction, and we heard some beautifully poised delicate playing in the slow movement to counterbalance the fireworks elsewhere. In the event, though, even more beautiful – and unexpected – was the encore, a little piece by Karl Jenkins where violinist and orchestra were joined by a traditional Indian flute.

The orchestra really shone in the second half of the programme, in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Martyn Brabbins took over the baton from the orchestra’s resident conductor Zane Dalal, who had given the performances of the score earlier in the tour. Here we heard not only superbly rehearsed and precisely delivered playing, but also instances of real characterisation from the soloists. The tone of Adelina Hasani as leader of the orchestra rang out superbly throughout, with impeccable tuning even in the fiendishly difficult harmonics, and a full tone which lent her many solo passages real narrative weight; lead cellist Sevak Avanesyan was no less accomplished. The real highlight was the delivery of the opening of ‘The Kalendar Prince’ movement by bassoonist Emily Hultmark, a rendition of real character and subtle nuance.

This was yet another modern performance of the score where the second movement followed without a pause immediately after the first, making the whole into one massive and almost monothematic structure (nearly all the melodies are variants on the opening theme). I can find no authority for this in the score, but it works well. Martyn Brabbins succeeded too in making the ‘The Young Prince and Princess’ slow movement into more than simply the gentle intermezzo it can sometimes become. And the final festival in Baghdad gathered an exhilarating sense of excitement as it plunged forward into the reappearance of the sea and Sinbad’s shipwreck.

This was a performance which brought resounding cheers and applause from the audience, to be followed by a delightfully pointed Elgar Chanson du matin as another unexpected encore. But this audience, who listened so attentively, was pitifully sparse and thin, with whole rows of seats in the stalls totally untenanted. Why? Perhaps audiences were deterred by the expectation that an orchestra they had never heard of might be purely provincial – certainly not the case here. Perhaps the fact the concert was being given in the middle of the Welsh National Opera season down in Cardiff Bay might have meant that audiences were already financial committed elsewhere. Maybe there have been too many performances of the Rimsky-Korsakov score in Cardiff recently – the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in January 2018, the Cardiff University Symphony Orchestra in March 2018, the BBC again (although in Swansea) in March 2017 – but before that one has to go back to 2014 for another performance in this hall.

It is too late for the Cardiff audiences to rectify their omission, but the orchestral tour proceeds with the same soloist and conductor to Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on 24 February and back to the Cadogan Hall, London, on 25 February, with the Bruch concerto instead of the Saint-Saëns at both venues and Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony replacing Scheherazade in London. Audiences there should not hesitate.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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