More Superb Stravinsky from Salonen and the Philharmonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stravinsky: Soloists of the Mariinsky Theatre, Philharmonia Orchestra and Voices/Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 26.5.2016. (CS)

Stravinsky: Myths and Rituals – Tales

Artyom Melikhov – tenor I
Alexandr Trofimov – tenor II
Yuroslav Petryanik – bass I
Andrei Serov – bass II
Dancers – Shahla Tarrant (Cock), Sam Archer (Fox), Chris Akrill (Cat), Adam Gilbraith (Ram)

Parasha – Natalia Pavlova, soprano
Mother – Evelina Agabalaeva, mezzo-soprano
Neighbour – Olga Bobrovskaya, mezzo-soprano
Vassily – Artyom Melikov, tenor

Les Noces
Margarita Ivanova, soprano
Olga Bobrovskaya, mezzo-soprano
Alexandr Trofimov, tenor
Andrei Serov, bass
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano
Tamara Stefanovich, piano
Nenad Lečić, piano
Lorenzo Soulès, piano
Performers – Chris Akrill, Sam Archer, Adam Gilbraith, Shahla Tarrant 

Irina Brown (director)
Quinny Sacks (choreographer)
Louis Price (designer)
Kevin Treacy (lighting designer)

Earlier this month, my colleague Colin Clarke described the first concert of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s series, Stravinsky: Myths and Rituals as a ‘remarkable performance, and one that bodes well for what promises to be a most important series’.  Following the second concert, entitled ‘Tales’, I can absolutely endorse his judgement.  This ambitious programme presented three dramatic vocal works which Stravinsky composed during the First World War (though they were not heard until the 1920s) and revealed Stravinsky’s responses to diverse influences – Russian popular song and dance in Renard, eclectic nineteenth-century classical idioms in Mavra, stylised ritual in Les Noces – and the links between them.

The performances, directed by Irina Brown, were driven by tremendous dynamism and wit, and were lent potent authenticity by the presence of a terrific cast of young soloists from the Mariinsky Theatre.  Slicing the air with relentless vigour, energy sparking from his thrusting, juddering shoulders and elbows, Esa-Pekka Salonen was a super-charged force of nature, articulating the mechanical ostinati and irregular rhythmic repetitions with both impelling fluidity and pinpoint accuracy.  Salonen collaborated with Brown and Price at the 2015 Proms, presenting Shostakovich’s Orango.  Reviewing that performance I noted that ‘Salonen and the Philharmonia had great fun with this outrageous and uproarious score’ and I admired the ‘orchestral fireworks and madcap energy’ – observations that could aptly describe this evening of terrific music-making and drama.

The burlesque tale Renard (The Fox), begun in 1916 and first performed in 1922 by the Ballets Russes at the Paris Opéra, was based on the composer’s adaptation of Alexandre Afanassyev’s Russian folk tale, which relates the universally familiar story of a cockerel being enticed from his perch by a fawning fox.  Stravinsky placed the tale within a ‘frame’ and imagined it as being acted by troupe of travelling minstrels (skomorokhi) in a pre-Petrine village.  He scored his ‘histoire burlesque chantée and jouée’ for four male singers and fifteen instrumentalists; four dancers take the roles of Fox, Cock, Cat and Ram.

There is no strict correspondence, however, between the vocalists and the mimed roles.  It’s the putting on of the show which is Stravinsky’s focus, and this performance, choreographed with flair by Quinny Sacks, emphasised the element of ‘masquerade’, exaggerating the abrupt, chaotic changes of mood.  Spontaneous vitality and boisterousness were the order of the day, as Stravinsky’s robust rhythms were allied to vigorous movements and gestures.

The entry and exit of the cast – the parodos and exodos of Greek comedy – was a lurching processional march accompanied by the mighty thumps of the bass drum and jangling crash of the cymbals.  The singers – sporting garish, primary-coloured Cossack shirts which further enhanced the spirit of pantomime – strayed into the action and out again, further disrupting the theatrical illusion.

The coarseness of the action was complemented by the outlandish costumes and satirical animal masks (designer, Louis Price).  Our vixen’s stripy stockings were set off by an orange tutu.  Later, disguising herself to seduce the preening cock from his perch, she adopted a priest’s headdress – perhaps an allusion to the historical skomorokhi, pagan priests who in Christian times used such entertainments to teach the populace, until they were outlawed in the mid-17th century.  Renard thus becomes an anti-clerical parody in which the Russian peasants are preyed upon by the Orthodox Church – a threat perhaps intimated here by an outsize noose and axe.

The four singers – tenors stage-right, basses stage-left – generated excitement both vocally and dramatically.  There was a lot to take in, though: the danced and mimed action (set against a mottled, brightly coloured back-drop), the singers who both told the tale and entered it, and Stravinsky’s busy score.  Seated on the far left of the Royal Festival Hall, I found it hard to take full note of the basses on the opposite side, particularly as the low register of the lines presented its own challenges.

Salonen drew forth the music’s abrasive and flamboyant qualities, and in the closing vocal section the conductor surged through the ostinato and repetitions to build to a tremendous climax.  The uncanny assortment of instrumental colours was worthy of a quirky village band, with Cyril Dupuy’s cimbalom adding greatly to the bizarre sound-world, especially when imitating the gusli as played by the Ram.

The fox became a fox-fur in Stravinsky’s one-act opera buffa, Mavra (1922), adorning the shoulders of Natalia Pavlova’s Parasha – the coquettish lass who smuggles her resourceful Hussar lover into her mother’s house by disguising him as the new cook, Mavra, only for her ruse to be undone when the ‘cook’ is discovered in the act of shaving.  Dedicated to the memory of ‘Pushkin, Glinka and Tchaikovsky’, Stravinsky’s opera is based on Pushkin’s tale, ‘The Little House at Kolomna’, which satirises shallow bourgeois manners in a small town.

Here, the staging was simple – just two screens surrounding a bench, with a hessian backdrop behind – but there was plenty of colour and liveliness in the delivery.  Stravinsky’s protagonists seem preoccupied with lamenting – Parasha sings a Russian maiden’s lament as she embroiders; the Mother laments the death of her cook, Fiocla; the Hussar, Vassily, laments his loneliness – but the music is capricious and urbane.  Stravinsky parodies Bellini’s indulgent coloratura, a lover’s waltz duet and ragtime, and the breathless ensembles recall the frenetic interchanges of Italian comic finales.  It’s a fickle hybrid of folk-song and western clichés, fused by strong marcato rhythms. Salonen incisively illuminated the nuances of the wind-based score, whose ‘lop-sidedness’ is deepened by a weighty bass complement, including four double basses, which is ‘balanced’ by just two violins and one viola.  The horns worked hard, to excellent effect, and the trumpet’s prominent melody was expressive.

Pavlova – whose performance as Susannah in the aforementioned Proms staging of Orango I had found ‘vocally strong and dramatically engaging’ – once again exhibited a fresh, clear tone and charming manner.  Evalina Agabalaeva struggled to project in the lower register but she sang her opening lament touchingly.  Artyom Melikhov was an ardent-voiced, virile Hussar.

The staging was rearranged for the post-interval performance of the ballet-cantata Les Noces (The Wedding, 1917), and the sight of four grand pianos assembled at the centre of the orchestral pit was a spectacle in itself.  However, when Les Noces was first staged by Diaghilev in 1923 – as ‘Choreographed Russian Scenes’ – the pianos were placed on stage, while the singers were in the pit, and thereby served as an illusion-breaking device.  It was a pity that this practice was not followed here, for the pianists were rather buried amid the instrumental and vocal forces, while the performers enacting the stylised peasant wedding did not make a particularly strong impression, not least because the eye was distracted by the scrolling text behind.  While English surtitles had been provided for Renard and Mavra, a programme note told us that it had been decided that, since it is ‘not possible to translate the Russian libretto literally’, no text would be provided – it would have been better if that decision had been followed to the letter.

Stravinsky’s libretto presents the complete script of a ritual that was actually a folk play.  The wedding described is nominally Christian – saints and the Virgin Mary are invoked – and we see the ritual preparations that are enacted in the houses of the bride and groom, followed by the marriage feast and concluding with the ritual bedding of the newly-weds.  But just as the action is ritualistic, so the form of Les Noces is itself highly suggestive of a sacred ceremony, and it seemed fitting that the soloists and the singers of the Philharmonia Voices processed formally into the dimly lit hall, the latter bearing lamp-lit scores and cloaked in simple, floor-length tabards.

Of the cast, Margarita Ivanova’s was the stand-out performance.  In the first scene, the bride weeps, – not necessarily, said Stravinsky, ‘because of real sorrow at her prospective loss of virginity, but because, ritualistically, she must weep’ – and Ivanova’s powerful, crystal-edged soprano conveyed this individual and communal solemnity with stunning directness and honesty.  The monotonal lines were penetrating and the awkward intervallic leaps effortlessly negotiated, while the ornamentations fluttered emotively.  Tenor Alexandr Trofimov and bass Andrei Serov, enclosed within the body of performers, found it more difficult to cut through the orchestral texture though, and might have benefited from an alternative placement.

Salonen expertly controlled the score’s violently energised rhythms and instantaneous shifts, whipping up a wild orgy of sound in the final tableau.  This was bold and daring conducting, and it was exhilarating to see and hear Salonen and his performers embracing the work’s extremes.  There are undoubtedly elements of these three works – composed when Stravinsky was in exile and so expressive of his homeland – which will always elude the non-Russian listener, but this concert movingly conveyed their archetypal spirit.

Claire Seymour

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