Pablo Heras-Casado Shows His Mettle in ‘Russian Masterpieces’

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev: Gil Shaham (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra/Pablo Heras-Casado (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London 9.6.2016 (CS)

Shostakovich: Festival Overture Op.96
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Op.35
Prokofiev: Symphony No.5 in B flat Op.100

Shostakovich’s Festival Overture is not one of the composer’s more subtle scores.  There are no private arguments or questions to be teased out; indeed, the work was an overt piece of public propaganda, written for an event celebrating the the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution, and is a marvellous homage to/send-up of Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila overture.  However, its bombastic fanfares, catchy melodies and hi-jinks virtuosity made an up-beat curtain-raiser to this concert of ‘Russian Masterpieces’ by the Philharmonia Orchestra and Pablo Heras-Casado, and its brassy, bravura excesses allowed the players to show off their ability and agility as they tore through Shostakovich’s triumphant flourishes.  Heras-Casado didn’t hold back, and the brass provided the necessary pizzazz in the festive flourishes which frame the breakneck romp; but the expansiveness of the horns’ and cellos’ second subject helped to keep things on the right side of the line between vivaciousness and vulgarity.

Musical America’s 2014 Conductor of the Year, Heras-Casado has varied interests in both opera (he was also appointed Principal Guest Conductor of Teatro Real, Madrid in 2014) and the symphonic repertoire (he has been Principal Conductor of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in New York since the 2012), and he demonstrated his diversity, and acuity, in the two substantial works which followed.

I’ve recently enjoyed both the relaxed refinement of Augustin Hadelich’s interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto (review) and an intense, driven rendition by Joshua Bell, which ‘grew from graceful beginnings to become an almost titanic struggle between soloist and orchestra’ (review).  Now, here was the opportunity to hear what fresh thoughts Gil Shaham, one of the most technically assured and reliable of today’s violin virtuosi, would have to impart.  The answer was a convincing blend of classical elegance and romantic feeling.

It’s always a temptation to search for a metaphor to convey one’s impression of a performance – and, often the best way to describe something is to compare it to something else.  If I allow myself to indulge in literary conceits here, I would say that Shaham recreated the experience of ‘taming’ a race horse, or perhaps a sports car.  The Porsche’s engine taunted the driver with its power in the Allegro moderato, but in the Canzonetta the friskiness was quelled, and its engine purred contentedly; then, in the Allegro vivacissimo, Shaham relished the capacity at his command on the open road.

The Philharmonia’s introductory phrases began quietly and at a noticeably relaxed tempo, but gradually acquired increasing definition and presence, and Shaham’s entrance was beautifully etched, the tone sweet and refreshing.  The violinist shaped the phrases with delightful grace, and the second subject was especially beautiful and spacious, quite robust on the G-string and silkily shiny at the top.  Shaham took his time to reflect, sensitively communicating nuances and inferences, and Heras-Casado was a keen listener.  Unwaveringly involved throughout the concerto in the orchestral commentary, Shaham swayed and smiled, turning to individual sections as they presented their contributions.  Elsewhere, he stepped to the very centre-front of the stage, projecting purely and powerfully to the Hall.

The cadenza was characterised by spot-on intonation, diversity of bow stroke and, again, a roominess that made the virtuosity seem much more than display.  The trill at the close was breathtakingly feather-light.  Heras-Casado shaped the recapitulation with an acute sense of drama building to a noble, rather than flamboyant close.

Unfortunately, the oboes, clarinets and bassoons were messy at the opening of the Canzonetta, and at times the orchestra seemed to be lagging just a fraction behind Shaham.  But the violinist’s shaping of the solo song was wonderful – the pianissimos were astonishingly gentle and rubatos were shrewd and engagingly fresh – and the woodwind redeemed themselves with some expressive playing.

The Finale kicked off like a fire-cracker and Shaham demonstrated effortless impeccability – double-stops, pizzicati, trills, whatever Tchaikovsky throws at the soloist was despatched with nimbleness and mellifluousness.  No wonder, with so many obvious aficionados present, that this performance was greeted with a standing ovation.

Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony may require huge orchestral forces – with extended woodwind including cor anglais, E-flat clarinet and contrabassoon; triple brass and tuba; a diverse percussive battery including triangle, cymbals, tambourine, snare drum, woodblock, bass drum, tam-tam; and with piano and harp thrown in for good measure – but Heras-Casado needed only a miniature score to guide the Philharmonia through this persuasive, confident performance.

Reportedly written in a single month in the summer of 1944, the symphony was described by its composer as ‘a work about the spirit of man’.  During that summer, Russia was locked in combat with Hitler’s Germany but on the day when the Fifth Symphony was premiered, in January 1945, the soldiers of the First Ukrainian Front broke through German defences and a Russian victory was sealed.  Though the work has no ‘programme’, it’s easy to imagine one hears the defiance of wartime Russia in the music’s noble, heroic expansiveness, but the ‘spirit’ in question might equally be a creative one – resistance against the jack-booted proponents of ‘socialist realism’.  Certainly, in Heras-Casado’s hands, the symphony seemed to recount a compelling narrative, such was the sureness of his feeling for the symphony’s overall structure and the phrasing of its melodic and rhythmic arguments.

The Andante began in relaxed, reticent spirit, and in the opening theme – played by flute and bassoon in octaves – we heard the first of the imaginative orchestral sonorities that colour the work and which Heras-Casado brought forth with clarity.  There was a sense of philosophical probing at the start, but the conductor quickly injected a driving energy, and this was propelled – here and throughout the symphony – by the dark-toned, lower orchestral regions.  The baton-less Heras-Casado seemed to stir a restless power in the bass instruments.  His gestures were free and communicative, and one could almost sense a force being transferred and transformed from the conductor’s shoulder and back muscles into the visceral playing of his instrumentalists. The fertile melodic material of the Andante was articulated with great mobility.

Prokofiev’s balletic wit was in evidence in the following Allegro marcato.  The tempo was on the cautious side at the start, which enabled the violins to give a razor-sharp bite to their chuntering marcato quavers, above which clarinet and oboe sang sunny melodies. But the music seemed to have its own in-built propulsion and there was a noticeable, though slight, accelerando which conjured high-spirits.  The movement bubbled along, a kaleidoscope of soloistic interjections above an underlying motoring pulse, each instrument eager to contribute its quirky motifs to the canvas.   There was some lovely feathery string playing and the woodwind slithered sweetly when reiterating the scalic second theme.  Then, after an airy trio-like episode, just when we’d settled back into the blithe spirit of the opening, Heras-Casado initiated an accelerando which gathered momentum like an out-of-control steam train, excitement turning to apprehension, and finally frenzy, as it hurtled onwards – as if towards inevitable calamity.

The Adagio had a heaviness in its heart at the start – Michael Levis’s tuba had a lovely rich tone, edged with melancholy – but Heras-Casado effectively balanced the underlying elegiac ‘ache’ of the main theme, with its searching minor-ninth rise, with a more peaceful lyricism.  The lovely long melodic lines were allowed to soar freely, and the angular, stratospheric theme was played confidently by the violins, as Heras-Casado created intense emotional power and authority.  In the central episodes, the horns and tuba excelled, their expansive statements releasing some of the tension, while the bass drum was a constant, nuanced presence, never allowing the momentum to flag.

The return of the material of the Andante at the start of the final Allegro giocoso brought a welcome moment of repose – and an opportunity to enjoy the rich tone of divided cellos and double basses – before the ensuing rondo whipped up a light-headed whirlwind which culminated in a blazing hymn of optimism.

After the premiere of the symphony, Prokofiev declared, ‘I conceived of it as glorifying the grandeur of the human spirit … praising the free and happy man—his strength, his generosity, and the purity of his soul.’  Heras-Casado summoned playing of great buoyancy and hopefulness from the Philharmonia – though a tinge of apprehension was never far away – confirming Prokofiev’s melodic gifts through his elegant shaping of the lyrical thematic material.

This was an affirmative and uplifting performance.  It was a pity that those who had obviously come primarily to hear Shaham did not stay after the interval to enjoy it.

Claire Seymour

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