United Kingdom Prokofiev, Elgar, Rimsky Korsakov: Steven Isserlis (cello), Clio Gould (violin), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Kirill Karabits (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 22.4.2014 (CS)
Prokofiev: Symphony No.1 in D (Classical)
Elgar: Cello Concerto
Kirill Karabits and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra moved from playful to plaintive to persuasive in this totally engaging performance. Karabits’ interpretation of Sergei Prokofiev’s pseudo-Haydn-esque ‘Classical’ Symphony subtly articulated the work’s dialogue between Classical elegance and the more mordant terseness of modernism.
The outer movements were characterised by a brisk airiness: from the breathless staccato passages which follow the rhetorical flourish that opens the Allegro, to the scurrying passage work of the Finale, all was weightlessly fleet. Even the pizzicati of the cellos and doubles basses were balletic and nimble! Perhaps Karabits did not always make the most of the opportunities for ironic contrast; the sudden forte outbursts might have been more flamboyantly pronounced perhaps, with a touch more humour highlighting the rhythmic asymmetries and harmonic twists. But, this was a composed, controlled account, if a little understated. The dense Beethovenian string textures in the Larghetto were beautifully counterpoised by the violins’ lyrical melody, which was extended by the unaffected pure tone of the flute. Karabits’ calm command and precision were in evidence in the third movement, Gavotta, where a nonchalant rubato at the start swept ebulliently into the leaping octaves of the main theme, which had both grandeur and wit.
Majesty of a darker hue was much in evidence in a moving and deeply personal performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto by Steven Isserlis. Written in the wake of World War I, the concerto undoubtedly articulates the composer’s melancholy in the aftermath of conflict and suffering, all the while expressing this desolation in language of deeply affecting beauty. From his first restrained, self-contained entry in the opening movement, Isserlis drew the audience into this introspective world, subtle changes of colour and enrichment guiding the listener, the roving, yearning melodic line at times blossoming with lyrical eloquence. A highly individual reading, there was nothing mannered about this performance, but every phrase seemed of equal significance, the musical narrative and emotional intensity superbly sustained. In the orchestral tutti, Karabits summoned a full, dignified tone, but there remained a sense of emotions held in check, as if the gravity and decorum couched a latent sadness.
The Lento transition to the second movement Allegro was wonderfully shaped, the pizzicato spread chords and double-stopping solemn yet resonant. Karabits was responsive to his soloist through the unceasing rubati and changes of tempo. Isserlis’ repeated semiquavers danced and quivered, but the energy was restless rather than light-hearted and the final pizzicato seemed to ring with defiance.
The sheer beauty of sound in the Adagio was spell-binding, Isserlis’ focused, contained tone supported by noble pizzicati from the celli and basses. At times there was a forward urging but always the music retained a sense of the weight carried by a burdened spirit. Here Isserlis seemed to me to find the consummate balance between concentrated introversion and powerful communication.
By contrast, the final movement had real anger and bite; the staccato was abrupt and penetrating, the pizzicati stabbing. So energised and driven was Isserlis that at times it seemed as if the cellist would take flight, literally lifting from his seat; in contrast, the slow quiet passages, in which the melody was passed seamlessly between soloist, violas and tutti celli, were remarkably self-possessed. There may be readings of this concerto which are more overtly impassioned, but there can be few that are so thought-provoking and profound. Isserlis’ encore – Pablo Casals’ ‘Song of the Birds’ – was equally individual and affecting.
The narrative after the interval was of a different kind, extroversion and ostentation replacing brooding meditation, and in Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral suite Scheherazade the players of the Royal Philharmonic were able to unleash their full, sumptuous sound and charm us with the colourful, exotic solos that the Russian composer’s orchestral tapestry offers. Throughout, much was made of the timbral contrasts. After the startling unison proclamation of the opening bars, the precision of the gentle woodwind chords at the start of ‘The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship’ slipped into the soothing, sensuous tracings of the Clio Gould’s solo violin melody – representing Scheherazade herself, as she beguiles her tyrannical Sultan husband with her infinite tales – accompanied by tender harp (Hugh Webb). Later, the array of solo woodwind meanderings were juxtaposed touchingly with cellist Jonathan Ayling’s graceful, even arpeggiac rises and falls. Karabits drove the movement forward, using the falling intervallic leap in the ‘Sultan’s Theme’ to create impetus.
John McDougall’s bassoon solo in the second movement sang with oriental mystery and desire; when passed to the oboe (John Roberts), it acquired a more sprightly character courtesy of the elegant, supple strings. Resonant fanfares introduced the clarinet’s eloquent recitative (William Stafford) accompanied by the fizz of fiery pizzicato strumming.
The dramatic woodwind flourishes in the following ‘The Young Prince and the Princess’ glittered through the rich string tone with effortless brilliance. The final movement, with its repetition of the thematic material of preceding movements, brought the story-telling to a coherent close, the peaceful coda which ends the work assuring us that Scheherazade has finally won the heart of her jealous Sultan. As Gould reprised her melody on the warm lower strings, we could believe that this spinner of tales might at last allow herself to rest.