Chloë Hanslip (violin), Inhye Kim (soprano), RPO at Cadogan Hall London

Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Ryu: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia Chorus, Chloë Hanslip (violin), Inhye Kim (soprano), Grzegorz Nowak (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London. 12.4.2011 (CG)

Shostakovich: Festive Overture (1954)
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto no 2 (1935)
Jeajoon Ryu: Sinfonia da Requiem “Ju-Yung Chung” (2008) (London Première)

Shostakovich’s Festive Overture was composed in 1954 to celebrate the thirty-seventh anniversary of the October Revolution in 1917. Josef Stalin had died in 1953, and although things were becoming a little easier for Shostakovich and other artists, he still felt obliged to write pieces acceptable to the authorities. Hence this – a bright, lively concert opener. It commences with a heraldic passage for the brass, which almost feels like something out of Wagner, before more typically up-tempo Shostakovich takes over, in patches somewhat reminiscent of the finale to the marvellous tenth symphony. It plumbs no great depths, but is entertaining enough, and the Royal Philharmonic gave it a sparkling and energetic performance under Nowak’s firm direction.

With Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, we were in different territory altogether. This is a mature and substantial work, composed in the early 1930’s and first performed in 1935, after Prokofiev had experienced life outside the Soviet Union, travelling widely across Europe, Japan and America and gaining an international reputation for himself as a composer and pianist. It is interesting to compare this with the much earlier First Violin Concerto, a fine performance of which I reviewed on April 3rd 2011. In the earlier work, there is a good deal of “neo classical” thinking (hardly surprising because it was composed round about the same time as the famous Classical Symphony) and a lightness of touch which reminds us that Prokofiev was only 26. By the Second Concerto, Prokofiev was in his early forties, had experienced life, and had developed his own style more completely. He had also tried to come to terms with the demands in terms of accessibility that were imposed by the Soviets. There is still the quirkiness present in all of his best music, but there’s also a broadness and lyricism that clearly foreshadows the glorious music of Romeo and Juliet, composed shortly afterwards. The concerto also shows evidence of the composer’s travels; not only are there hints of Russianness, most clearly heard in the rather folksy melody at the start, but also of things stormy and Spanish, particularly in the rondo of the last movement, which is complete with castanets. Perhaps the epicentre is the gracefully melodic slow movement – beautifully emotional, yes, but never crossing the line into overt sentimentality.

This is wonderful music and tonight’s soloist, the 22-year-old Chloë Hanslip, played it exquisitely. What an extraordinarily gifted violinist she is – you could not imagine a more committed and thoughtful performance. She does quite wonderful things with every phrase – it’s an absolute joy. And the RPO rose to the occasion too, with exceptionally warm and sensitive playing from all departments.

After the interval the RPO was joined by the soprano, Inhye Kim, and the Philharmonia Chorus for the first London performance of the Sinfonia da Requiem by the Korean composer, Jeajoon Ryu. This is a large-scale work, setting various passages from the Requiem Mass, and it was composed in honour of the founder of the Hyundai Group and the Assan Foundation, Ju-Yung Chung. The programme note told us that Ju-Yung Chung had died in 2002, having contributed enormously to the development of Korean industry and the economy following the Korean War, and having established the Assan foundation to help the poor by providing well equipped medical facilities in Korea, as well as Cambodia, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

This is predominantly a troubled, turbulent, Requiem. Of course it invites comparison with other Requiems, and with Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem. It is the very antithesis of the more comforting Requiems by, for instance, Fauré or Duruflé. It is frequently very noisy and dramatic; the orchestration is full, as is the choral writing. There is no doubting the sincerity behind this work, composed in a highly chromatic if essentially tonal idiom.  Much of the material emanates from a rising chromatic cell heard at the beginning. There are passages which offer respite from the stress and violence mainly in evidence, and the work ends positively in D major.

In this performance, and from my position in the gallery, there were often problems of balance. One could see the soprano singing, but she was largely inaudible! The choir, also in the gallery, was commendably robust and hearty, but threatened to overwhelm the orchestra and soloist. I did feel that some sections were probably over-orchestrated – but there again, perhaps a larger hall would have been more suitable for forces of this size. And perhaps the balance problems were less noticeable in the stalls downstairs.

I am not sure it will enter the main repertoire in the way that other recent Requiems have, and it cannot measure up to Britten’s War Requiem, for instance, but it contributed to a fascinating evening, with Chloe Hanslip’s wonderful performance of the Prokofiev surely the highlight. And it was heart-warming to hear the RPO in absolutely terrific form throughout.

An ongoing sub-issue at the Cadogan Hall is a background electrical hum, clearly audible in the gallery during the quietest musical passages although I have not noticed it in the stalls downstairs. It is to be hoped that this can be fixed one day.

Christopher Gunning