Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s CBSO make Petrushka ‘Snap and Fizz’

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Aldeburgh Festival [2] – Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky: Trio Isimsiz (Michael Petrov, cello; Erdem Misirlioglu, piano; Pablo Hernan Benedi, violin); City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Aldeburgh Music Festival, 18.6.2017. (CF)

Tchaikovsky – Piano Trio in A Minor
Stravinsky – Petrushka (1911, rev. 1947)

Despite the sweltering conditions outside, the Snape Maltings concert hall was packed for this Russian double bill, in which the two composers were contrasted at very different scales – trio versus orchestra. One sign of the high expectations of the performances on offer was to be found in the more famous members of the audience: I clocked BBC Radio 3’s Tom Service, Roger Wright (former Radio 3 Director and now Chief Executive of the Aldeburgh Music Festival), and Alina Ibragimova. All mingled freely with the public, an aspect which seems to typify the festival’s easy-going vibe. Indeed, the only complaint I heard all day was a lack of breeze in the concert hall, but the temperatures outside were truly exceptional for June, and I never found it unbearable.

First off, then, were the young and bravura Trio Isimsiz, who opened the concert with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A Minor. From the initial main theme’s appearance in the cello, perfectly pezzo elegiac, you could tell the piece of Late Romanticism was in safe hands. The synchrony between the young players is already intuitive, natural; the enjoyment in music-making readily audible. This was a polished performance – at times reined in and intimate but culminating in an impassioned finale, in which the main theme is reprised. It is a hugely Romantic moment and the three players raised their weary bows and fingers to provide the suitably-emphatic closure the work demands. Considering the trying conditions, this was mesmeric playing. My one cavil would be the sound of the trio, which seemed to struggle to fill the barn-like concert hall. The piano especially sounded submerged, only seeming to truly come to life in the crashing forte chords of the finale, which made me wonder at why it had sounded so remote until then.

This was made more apparent after the interval by the voluptuous snap and fizz of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra which followed. The piano, now turned to face the audience and quite literally a central performer in the ballet orchestration, had a clarity it had lacked earlier. Perhaps this was the peculiarity of the heat: atmospherics is ever that unknown quantity through which sound travels, and surely can dampen or enliven its sonic qualities.

The sympathetic synergy which the young Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla has elicited from the players in the short time since she joined as their chief was apparent from the opening of Petrushka. The version chosen was the 1947 revision, in which Stravinsky pared back the orchestra size; well the CBSO certainly didn’t sound pared back.

This was a thrilling performance, utterly transparent – each harp pluck, every flute harmonisation – were audible. Gražinytė-Tyla’s balletic podium gestures teased out all the known themes with only a few weird (slow) tempos in the opening Shrovetide Fair section. The Crowd section sang with joyful woodwind phrases, whilst the Moor’s Room’s rhapsodic string work was thrillingly realised, allowing one to hear a direct harmonic link with the similarly rapturous stringscape in Tavener’s The Protecting Veil. Similarly, the percussionists underscored the dark turbulence of the Masqueraders. Finally, Petrushka’s death didn’t overplay the plaintiveness, and the cheeky re-appearance of his ghost had just the right amount of bite and grit in the discordant trumpets.

In this format, the choppiness of the piece can feel too episodic and at times juggernaut-like, a fairground ride you can’t get off even if you want to. But this particular performance made it feel more Brittenesque, almost a Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra, a textbook demonstration of all the different textures, dynamics and harmonies that can be conjured out of this assemblage of instruments.

Indeed, so vibrant and intense was the sonic display,  so brilliant the tight-knitted unity between orchestra and conductor, that not only did I not want the piece to end, but I also began thinking of what other orchestral works I’d love to hear them in – Shostakovich, Sibelius, and Georg Friedrich Haas – and began even considering the logistics of a relocation to Birmingham.

Aldeburgh, then, continues to attract top names and grow as a festival. I heard tell of provisional plans to extend the accommodation by up to 100 rooms, enabling both larger orchestras to stay and young musicians, composers and artists to work on projects together. All of which bodes well for the future, and is surely in the spirit of its founder, Benjamin Britten.

Cornelius Fitz

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