United Kingdom Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov: Alexander Ghindin (piano) London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 7.2.2018. (CS)
Stravinsky – Scherzo fantastique; Funeral Song
Rimsky–Korsakov – Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor Op.30
Stravinsky – The Firebird, complete ballet (1910)
The LPO set off on Stravinsky’s Journey just five days previously (review), and so these are early days in the orchestra’s Changing Faces series which, as it unfolds during 2018, will explore the composer’s ‘life and music as he travelled the globe and traversed the massive changes of the 20th century’. But, things are already looking interesting, as the LPO place Igor Stravinsky’s music alongside works that which his influence infused and shaped, and music that influenced his own compositions.
This second stage-post on the journey marked a chain of ‘paternal’ influences stretching from Mily Balakirev via Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov to Stravinsky. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Piano Concerto (1883) pays tribute to Balakirev’s status as a founder-father of Russian musical nationalism, based as it is upon a folksong from a collection assembled by Balakirev which had been published in 1866. Rimsky-Korsakov was himself memorialised in his pupil Stravinsky’s Funeral Song. But, such works, as well as Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique, also show these young composers seeking to establish their own voices, and the LPO’s programme carried us forwards to the marvellous blossoming of Stravinsky’s musical confidence and eloquence in his 1909 ballet The Firebird which was, of course, nurtured by yet another ‘artistic father’, Serge Diaghilev.
Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique was written in 1907-08, under the guidance of Rimsky-Korsakov, but while its chromatic and whole-tone orientalism is firmly based in the Russian tradition, Vladimir Jurowski’s conjuring of the music’s quick-silver capriciousness made the work feel fresh, modern and dangerously mercurial. Indeed, Jurowski was a master-magician, balancing muted inference and edgy intrusion from the brass with the warm lyricism of the strings and clarinet, before jittery skitteriness embraced all.
Stravinsky’s Funeral Song was performed on 17th January 1909, at the first Russian Symphony Concert in memory of Rimsky-Korsakov. Since then it was assumed lost, until the relocation of music stock at St Petersburg Conservatoire’s in the spring of 2015 led to the rediscovery of the orchestral parts and the subsequent ‘second performance’ of this work – written at the close of Stravinsky’s ‘Russian period’ and on the cusp of commencing his association with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in Paris –at Maryinsky concert hall in St Petersburg in December 2016, conducted by Valery Gergiev. Jurowski captured the almost obsessive, even stubborn, insistence of the Funeral Song as motifs were repeated with ritualistic gravity; but he also encouraged dialogues – as between the flute and violas for example – and sustained a dramatic continuum, from the portentous juxtaposition of low tuba and high, shrill woodwind at the start, through the horn’s dignified but elegiac theme, to the chromatic mysteries of the tremolando strings.
Jurowski tapped into a folky vein at the start of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Piano Concerto which, like the Second Concerto of Franz Liszt, to whom this Concerto is dedicated, fuses three separate moods/sections into a seamless continuity. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Concerto was written in 1882-83 and first performed in March 1884 at one of Balakirev’s Free School concerts in St Petersburg. It’s a charming work, full of folky whimsy, light-spirited sparkle and Russian ‘fragrance’. The twists and turns of the opening Moderato were fleetly negotiated by Jurowski and his soloist, Alexander Ghindin, and there was a refreshing airiness. Ghindin had all the notes under his fingers and conjured a sense of freedom and invention: the light touch of the trickling cascades provided glitter but there was also apt power when required. What was missing was pianistic grace and eloquence, most notably in the central Andante mosso, though lead cellist Kristine Blaumane offered a beautiful solo exemplar.
Vigorous piano triplet-semiquaver oscillations and snapping string pizzicatos ratcheted up the temperature and tempo into the concluding Allegro, which was heralded by bright trumpet declarations. Ghindin’s entry suggested he wanted to push things on even more spiritedly, and Jurowski quickly put his foot on accelerator. While I was thankful that Ghindin let the brilliance shine and did not over-milk any folky sentimentality – this is, despite its obvious Russian bloodline, a concerto the emotive weight of which might be described as ‘Rachmaninov-lite’– there was a sense of artifice about Ghindlin’s playing, and his interpretation, that was rather disengaging and distancing. It became even more apparent in the encore – Stravinsky’s ‘Danse russe’ from Petruchka – which was hammered home with scarce nuance and seeming disinterest.
After the interval Jurowski and the LPO offered us a complete account of The Firebird. As so many times previously, I was impressed and entranced by Jurowski’s ability to blend precision with poetry: the baton etches and points, the left hand coaxes and guides; not a detail evades his notice or attention; there is no fussiness just persuasive comprehensiveness and coherence. Jurowski crafted the score’s magic in order to bewitch us, through clarity of detail and coloristic frisson: a sense that Stravinsky was, here, attempting to out-do the master orchestrator, Rimsky-Korsakov. There was a marvellous marriage of rigid order and ornamental rhapsodising, which conjured a dance narrative in one’s visual imagination. The emphatic, even grotesque, gestures of the score were enhanced by the fragile strangeness of much of the surrounding material.
The LPO were inspired: section principals relished their solos – with flautist Juliette Bausor, clarinettist Sang Yoon Kim, bassoonist Jonathan Davies and horn player David Pyatt all deserving admiration. The choreographic husbandry of the entrance and exit, stage-right, of the ‘off-stage’ Wagner tubas, was executed with ritualistic majesty, and the effect, as in the pulsating, racing conclusion of the ballet, was uplifting.