London Philharmonic and Sinaisky on Top Form at Swansea Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prokofiev, Mendelssohn, Sibelius: Chloe Hanslip (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vassily Siniasky (conductor), Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 13.10.2012 (GPu)

Prokofiev: Symphony No.1 in D (Classical)
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor
Sibelius: Symphony No.2 in D

It is some years since the London Philharmonic last visited the Swansea Festival. It was doubly good to welcome them back to the cramped stage but fine acoustics of the Brangwyn Hall, given that they treated their audience to a consistently fine (and varied) concert.

Prokofiev’s first symphony, written in 1916 when the composer was in his mid twenties, is a masterly piece of musical ‘translation’, the etymology of which word implies an action of ‘carrying across’. Prokofiev worked, he said, on the assumption “that if Haydn had lived in this century he would have kept his own style while absorbing things from later music. I wanted to write the kind of symphony that would have that style”. He sounds like John Dryden, the master poet-translator of the second half of the seventeenth century, defining an ‘imitation’ as a case where a later writer, following the ‘pattern’ of a poem by an earlier one, seeks ‘to write, as he supposes that author would have done, had he lived in our age, and in our country’. Dryden reminds us that a translator does not only ‘carry something across’ from one time to another but also from one place to another. Prokofiev’s translation of the ‘pattern’ of Haydn involves both time and place, involves a translation both to 1916 and to Russia. Rarely, indeed, have I heard a concert performance in Britain which made this symphony sound so thoroughly Russian. It can easily sound excessively ‘rational’ and academically cold, but Vassily Siniasky and the LPO made it delightfully warm and expressive. The opening pages of the initial allegro were full of spry elegance, but also of love. The dignified dance of the larghetto was full of beautifully, lovingly shaped phrases and translucent textures, rounded off by a touchingly hushed conclusion. The faster, more sprightly, dance of the third movement was characterised by the precise delicacy of Siniasky’s conducting which, for all its precision, was never remotely in danger of sounding pedantic. In the closing movement (marked allegro vivace) there was a perfectly balanced response to the demands, on the one hand, of form and, on the other, of energy, a balance of wit and fleetness that made this a better performance of the work than I have ever previously heard ‘live’.

Orchestra and conductor were joined by Chloe Hanslip for Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, an adventurous, even experimental work which (for all its familiarity) still has the power to challenge and surprise. There was an attractive freshness to Chloe Hanslip’s work as soloist and Siniasky was a sympathetic accompanist, and more than a mere accompanist when he needed to be. Hanslip’s playing (her instrument a 1737 Guarneri del Gesul violin) was full of tonal variety and throughout there was a real sense of dialogue between soloist and orchestra, even of a solo player whose contributions grew out of and returned to the orchestra, so that there was never that sense of soloist ‘here’ and orchestra ‘there’ that can sometimes arise. There were beautifully delivered moments of rapt near-stasis in the first movement, a movement in which the work of the LPO’s trumpets was especially impressive. The passage for solo bassoon that effects the transition from first to second movement carried impressive authority and a clear sense of direction, and as the movement developed the work of soloist and orchestra alike communicated a sense of almost dream-like yearning and serenity; at its close the playing of soloist and orchestra/conductor had a seemingly intuitive unity of purpose, conjuring up one of those wonderful moments when all concerned seem aspects of a single unified creating/interpreting consciousness. The last movement had about it a sense of irresistible momentum, a momentum which found space for both gravitas and vivacity, for both playfulness and an almost Schilleresque ‘Joy’.

The sheer technical accomplishment of the LPO (though, of course, they bring more than mere ‘accomplishment’ to their work) and the insight and intelligence of Vassily Siniasky had already made a very favourable impression by the interval. After the interval, with a performance of Sibelius’s second symphony, that impression became, if anything, even more favourable. The richness of the string sound at the beginning of the first movement was memorable, and Siniasky’s judgement of tempo (and fluctuations thereof), as the movement progressed seemed unerring. The listener had a sense both of the movement’s remorseless musical logic and of a moral argument, a movement towards a kind of controlled, but excited, optimism. The slow movement profoundly qualifies any easy optimism, with its troubling writing for pizzicato basses and cellos and a mournful solo for the bassoon (both passages being exceedingly well played); the movement makes its mostly uneasy way towards a conclusion in which darkness comes close to overpowering light, as it feels, once and for all. As in the first movement, Siniasky’s control was exact but seemingly unforced – his podium manner engaging and relaxed. Though the third and final movement does, indeed, bring a degree of relief, of ‘liberation’ if one takes the political reading of the work, there was no let up in intensity in this performance. The oboe melody was gorgeously played and its plaintive melancholy was only with difficulty overcome as affirmation and closure is repeatedly approached and deferred – again Siniasky’s judgement was perfect in matters of pace and dynamics, not least in the unexaggerated broadening of the tempo in the final phase of the movement.

All in all this was a thoroughly impressive and enjoyable concert: three very different pieces all receiving convincing and persuasive readings and one in which the London Philharmonic were heard at something like their best. And, if any one was in danger of forgetting it, it reminded us just how fine a conductor Vassily Siniasky is.

Glyn Pursglove