Prom 44 – Salonen and the Philharmonia in a somewhat variable Russian Prom

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky : Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen. Royal Albert Hall, London, 17.8. 2011 (CC)

Shostakovich: The Age of Gold (Suite, Op. 22a).
Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77

Stravinsky: Petrushka (1946 version)

Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32

High hopes and a full crowd lent the moments before the music began at this Prom a real frisson. In the event, the Cadillac of London orchestras, the Philharmonia (as opposed to the LSO as the capital’s Ferrrari) gave a Russian evening of somewhat uneven quality.

The Suite from The Age of Gold (1930) was perfect Prom material, a conglomeration of the sweet (superb violin solo from the Philharmonia’s leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay) and the cartoony-grotesque. Salonen seemed perfectly aware of the huge contrasts here – for example from the intensity of the Adagio to the gestural opening and ensuing antics of the famous Polka. There were also interesting echoes of Petrushka in the oscillating accompaniment for the final ‘Dance’. Salonen also ensured that the cacophanous passages sounded entirely Shostakovichian. Tremendous.

Equally tremendous, if not more so, was Lisa Batiashvili’s all-encompassing account of the same composer’s First Violin Concerto (which she has recently recorded with Salonen on a DG album called Echoes of Time, catalogue number 4779299). The Philharmonia’s opening long, creeping line in the lower strings seemed distinctly chthonic; Lisa Batiashvili projected her plangent line above it perfectly, eminently audible yet retaining the music’s underlying intimacy. Salonen’s conducting was superbly thought-through. Even simple pairs of chords in the accompaniment were so marvelously weighted and shaded that they sprang to life. The mesmeric melodic web of the opening ‘Nocturne’ led to a Scherzo where, in truth, the orchestra was more connected than the soloist. The Philharmonia had no problems digging in whereas Batiashvili seemed milder in approach. It was the Passacaglia that was most memorable, stern and enabled in expression by Salonen’s sure sense of direction. Batiashvili really came into her own in the infamous cadenza, here a cadenza of spellbinding focus. The macabre spice of the finale led to prolonged applause and an encore, a delicious Shostakoich waltz arranged by the soloist’s father.

Petrushka was the great disappointment. Despite many superb moments, the fact was that this sounded disengaged. A demanding score sounding easy – it even sounded as if the players were bored. Detail was there, and one admired the Boulez-like analytical slant and gestural elements of “Petrushka’s Cell”. Yet the “Shrovetide Fair” of the fourth tableau, which can appear to arrive in a blaze of light, here dropped on us in a type of sepia. The rest of the performance continued as a celebration of the uninvolving.

It was good to hear Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini instead of its more popular sister, Romeo and Juliet. This was far better – the ominous descending scale into the depths (a Tchaikovskian characteristic) was positively doom-laden and made a huge impact. Here, at last, was a sense of drama. The piece was expertly shaped, too, by Salonen. The overall effect was powerful and made the best possible case for this piece. Difficult to imagine why we don’t hear it more often, in fact.

Colin Clarke