United Kingdom Prom 50 – Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev: Stephen Hough (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Vedernikov (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 23.8.2016. (AS)
Tchaikovsky: Hamlet – Fantasy-Overture Op.67
Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Prokofiev: Symphony No.3 in C minor Op.44
Alexander Vedernikov has enjoyed a prominent career in his own country, notably as Music Director of the Bolshoi Theatre for nine years, but he is less well known in the UK than some of his other distinguished Russian conductor colleagues. This was his Prom debut. A programme of works by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev might seem to be very standard popular fare for such an artist, but this concert was slightly different, since two of the works were outside mainstream repertoire.
A second hearing of Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet Overture this year made me wonder again why such a fine work is performed so infrequently in comparison with this composer’s other mature concert works. Perhaps the quiet ending is a disincentive.
It was at once clear that Vedernikov was not going to adopt a barnstorming approach to Hamlet. The rapid ascending strings at its opening were played in a measured manner rather than in a hectic rush. If at first a lack of dramatic impact seemed a little disappointing, Vedernikov’s balanced, proportionate view of the score bought its own rewards, since it had a pleasing lyrical emphasis, and tension developed naturally as the musical argument unfolded. In such a context the work’s quiet ending seemed perfectly placed.
This was Stephen Hough’s third Prom performance of Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody and his recorded performance of it for Hyperion has won many plaudits (review). There was not a hint of routine or staleness in his playing, despite the fact that he must have played the work many times, and it had a remarkable quality of beauty and elegance. That’s not to suggest any lack of expressive power, since Hough’s formidable technique also informed many passages with a kind of shimmering brilliance. The music was at all times rendered in an aristocratic, thoughtful manner, and nothing was pressed too hard for the sake of effect. Vedernikov seemed very much in accord with his soloist, and he obtained precise, neatly pointed playing from the orchestra.
Prokofiev’s Third Symphony, based on material from the composer’s then-unperformed opera The Fiery Angel, is generally thought to be unsatisfactory as a symphonic structure per se: in the case of another opera, The Love for Three Oranges, the composer arranged material from that work for concert performance in the perhaps more suitable form of a suite. Yet the symphony contains some remarkably colourful and dramatic music, as befits original subject matter that explores “that sacred edge which divides our world from the dark sphere in which float spirits and demons”.
Alexander Vedernikov can claim to have special insight into Prokofiev’s original musical inspiration, since he conducted The Fiery Angel in a Bolshoi Theatre production: his strong commitment to the work was evident. It’s a temptation for conductors to charge full-tilt into Prokofiev’s characteristic motor rhythms, but as in the Tchaikovsky piece Vedernikov tempered the first movement’s vehement nature with a certain restrained lyricism, a style of approach that also suited the gentler Andante, with its unquiet undertones. He also brought out the composer’s range of colour and atmospheric effects very subtly in the third movement Allegro agitato. Only in the finale did the conductor really encourage his players to pull out the stops, and the work duly came to a noisy end. No doubt some listeners would have preferred a more blatantly powerful performance overall, but Vedernikov’s way seemed perfectly valid on the night. His clear-cut beat, spiced with all manner of highly expressive gestures, reminded this onlooker of the similarly very Russian way in which Gennady Rozhdestvensky used to paint orchestral sound colours. A word, too, for the splendid BBCSO, which to judge from its last two concerts I have heard, is in particularly good state at present.