Outstanding Saint-Saëns from Alina Ibragimova

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Rachmaninov: Alina Ibragimova (violin), Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse / Tugan Sokhiev (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 29. 3.2012 (GPu)

DebussyPrélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
:  Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, Op. 61
: Symphonic Dances

Several recordings in recent years have made clear that the Orchestre National du Toulouse, with their Ossetian Music Director Tugan Sokhiev form a very accomplished musical ensemble. He has held that post since 2008, having been the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor for three years before that. This was, however, my first chance to hear them live and my high expectations were very largely fulfilled.

On this particular occasion their programme began with Debussy, in a poetically evocative performance of the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune which was not the rather sleepily languorous work we sometimes hear. Rather there was both a clear sense of architectural structure and the presence of an insistent drive, all articulated through a well-blended orchestral sound, in which the strings sounded particularly sumptuous without ever becoming over-sweet. The harps of Gaelle Thouvenin and Cécile Barutaut and the flute of François Laurent were impressive and there was repeated occasion (as there was later in the evening too) to admire the musicianship of leader Geneviève Laurenceau. This was a vivid and inviting opening to the evening.

Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns may not be ‘the French Beethoven’ that Gounod once called him, but he is sometimes in danger of being underrated nowadays. One of the works on which a case for his merits might reasonably be based is his Third Violin Concerto – and it is hard to imagine that case being put much more persuasively than it was by Alina Ibragimova in this performance. The concerto is a somewhat quirky mixture of elements which can sometimes seem a little random, but Ibragimova and Sokhiev brought out the work’s underlying coherence in exemplary fashion. At the beginning of the first movement Ibragimova’s playing had immediate authority, her statement of the first theme passionately declamatory, while the contrasting second theme was full of achingly poignant lyricism. The whole first movement was enlivened by the soloist’s unflamboyant range of tone and colour; she is one of those soloists who always seems to be directing attention to the music rather than to herself and the exactness of whose focus communicates itself to her audience. One moment where conductor and soloist were slightly at odds did nothing to mar an absorbing reading of the first movement.

In the barcarolle of the second movement the interplay of solo violin and woodwinds was both exquisite and full of emotional weight.  Ibragimova’s playing had an elegance which went far beyond mere charm and the movement’s close, with the harmonics of the violin echoed by the solo clarinet, was memorably beautiful. Throughout the third movement one was conscious of a striking sense of purpose and direction in the work of soloist and conductor alike, the whole pervaded by a strong sense of mutuality, as the orchestra repeatedly echoed the utterances of the soloist. The sense of drama was gripping, Ibragimova being very clearly the dominant figure in that drama; the orchestra, although more central to the development of ideas than in the two previous movements, was still subordinate to the conflicted emotions superbly articulated by Ibragimova, before the ‘release’ effected by the switch to B major and the quasi-chorale that ensues, preceding the movement’s optimistic conclusion (which seems a little too ‘easy’ for the overall good of the work). Ibragimova, for all the quietness of her stage demeanour, was a compelling presence from beginning to end, and was well supported throughout by conductor and orchestra,

Perhaps because the Saint-Saëns concerto was quite so good, I found the closing performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances very slightly disappointing. Much of the orchestral playing was of the highest order, but sometimes a relishing of orchestral colour seemed to happen at the cost of the clear delineation of the work’s structures and of its underlying seriousness (despite the relative ‘lightness’ in its title). The opening of the first dance was played with quicksilver fluidity and the waltz of the second movement had a dark, sensuous quality that attracted and disturbed in equal measure. In the last dance the strings were especially impressive and Sokhiev’s control of rhythm and dynamics was faultless; the work of the whole orchestra was impressively precise and forceful in the work’s conclusion. Yet, at a few too many points in the three movements there was a slight, admiring lingering over particular passages which took away just a little of the work’s quasi-symphonic momentum. The disappointment was felt, let me add, just because the work of orchestra and conductor set such high standards otherwise.

While both Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances received performances one was very glad to have heard, it was the reading of Saint-Saëns Violin Concerto that was truly memorable.

Glyn Pursglove