Rome Goes Russian

ItalyItaly Rimsky-Korsakov, MussorgskyChorus and Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.  Chorus Master, Ciro Visco.  Conductor, Stanislav Kochanovsky.  Evgeny Nikitin (bass)  Sala Santa Cecilia 07.04.2014 (JB)

If you’ve seen Angelo Bozzolini’s documentary about the Orchestra of Santa Cecilia you will know that these players look forward every year to working with Yuri Temirkanov.  And always on a Russian programme.  But this year it was not to be.  The great maestro was unwell.  In his place came a sprightly young man by the name of Stanislav Kochanovsky with the promised bass, Evgeny Nikitin, and the same programme advertised for Maestro Temirkanov’s baton.

Of course, Mr Kochanovsky was no substitute for Mr Temirkanov.  How could he be?  But that said, there are still worthwhile things to report about this young conductor.

Rimsky-Korsakov was a native of the city of Tikhvin, some two hundred kilometres east of St Petersburg and an important centre, housing some of the finest icons of the Russian Orthodox Church.  Rimsky, who was not a believer himself, nevertheless invokes these icons in a singularly suggestive way in his Russian Easter Festival Overture, op36. There are also direct quotes from the liturgical music, much embroidered with Rimsky’s acclaimed orchestration.   It was Rimsky’s mission to move Russian culture eastwards and so away from its European taints.

But Mr Kochanovsky, who is a native of St Petersburg, sounded as though he was determined to drag this music right back into Europe.  Whereas Rimsky evokes some hauntingly suggestive  mists in sound, Kochanovsky seemed to think he was at a Salvation Army street concert on a damp Saturday night. And in case you’re wondering, the orchestra’s sublime brass performed well for this young man.  But I was left with the feeling there was no real direction from the front.   The battle of European versus Eastern,  goes on in Russia, with Europe mostly winning, so one cannot entirely discredit Kochanovsky.  But Rimsky would surely have protested at this young man’s treatment of his declared intentions.

Lento mistico  says Rimsky at the start of the overture, then Andante lugubre –a guideline which Vincenzo Paratore picked up on beautifully in his trombone solo and Kochanovsky even invited him to stand for applause at the end of the fifteen minute piece.  So young though he may be, he gleaned that here was an orchestral player who knew what he was doing.

Mussorgsky is even more Russian –and again with strong Eastern leanings- than Rimsky.  He’s also more strikingly original.  Boris Godunov  is far and away the most moving opera to have come out of Russia.  The programme had three scenes from the opera: the coronation scene, Boris’s Act 11 monologue and the death of Boris.  In my youth, this opera was always performed with Rimsky’s re-orchestration “correcting” what were considered Mussorgsky’s crude instrumentation.  It was with Abbado at Covent Garden in the eighties (and in a staging of breathtaking beauty by Tarkovsky) that the original Mussorgsky score was restored.  It was shocking.  Just as Mussorgsky had intended.  And his instrumentation hit the very nerve of the drama.  It turned out that Rimsky had not only re-orchestrated but made schoolmasterish corrections to Mussorgsky’s “rough” harmonies.   Rather as though Walt Disney rehashed a film of Ingmar Bergman.

Those Rimsky revisions had the enormous advantage of having Boris Christoff in the title role (Christoff never sang any other version and I must have seen him perform the role half a dozen times.  They remain definitive.  The most chilling experience available in an opera house. )

The Russian bass, Evgeny Nikitin, was no match for Christoff; he made every effort to sing/ act the role whereas Christoff was  the role.  Nikitin churned out the part: all the right notes but with no sense in them.  They performed Mussorgsky’s original 1874 Marinsky version.  But Stanislav Kochanovsky had no idea what he was supposed to do here either.  The orchestra responded well to such signals as he gave them but his indications were slight and showed no understanding of Mussorgsky’s mighty originality.  While Rimsky set a clearly-defined tradition, Mussorgsky was a loner: there is no other, before or after him to stand alongside him.  That essential detail escaped the notice of conductor and soloist.  Ciro Visco alone got all the right sounds out of the Santa Cecilia Chorus.

After the interval Maestro Kochanovsky could have been another conductor.  I’m sure that Scheherazade is a test-piece for young conductors in Russia.  Well it is a test which Kochanovsky passes with flying colours.  His gestures here were elegant and clear.  Finally, he had established a relationship with the orchestra.  And they were giving him their best.  They do this all the time with Pappano and Temirkanov.  But now it was happening to Kochanovsky.

This is Rimsky’s orchestration at its finest.  And it was alive in an electrifying way.  Carlo Parazzoli, the orchestra’s leader, spun out Scheherazade’s narrative in the most languid, expressive tones, much assisted by Cinzia Maurizio’s harp.  The seascape of the finalè was a pictorial riot of sound such as is rarely heard, especially at its climax with three hardworking percussion players –triangle, cymbals (suspended and crashed) and bass drum.  Kochanovsky was not just vital  in his communication with the orchestra.  Every soul in the audience was with him on this adventure.

Jack Buckley

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