Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky Dance in Dialogue at the Festival Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky: Daniil Trifonov (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 17.3.2018. (CS)

Daniil Trifonov
Daniil Trifonov

Tchaikovksy: The Sleeping Beauty (excerpts, arr. Stravinsky); Piano Concerto No.1 in Bb minor Op.23
Stravinsky: The Fairy’s Kiss (complete ballet)

As the UK and Russia traded accusations, insults and evictions last week, Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO took their Changing Faces: Stravinksy’s Journey series ‘on the road’, travelling with pianist Daniil Trifonov to Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Munich to present programmes of Russian music by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Stravinsky.

Arriving back in London, Trifonov seemed to have lost none of his delight in and fresh response to Tchaikovsky’s ‘war-horse’.  His exuberant enthusiasm in the chiming chords at the start of the Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso was palpable.  And ‘chiming’ is an apt descriptor: Trifonov’s Fazioli piano clanged brightly throughout with both positive and negative effects.  The slightly tinny echo of the opening theatrics pealed persuasively and resonantly through the orchestra’s first statement of the ‘big theme’, though in the second movement the lyricism had a slightly hard edge, and elsewhere there was a tonal inflexibility which weakened the lyrical sensibility.

Repetition had obviously brought assurance and ease to the musical partnership between Trifonov and Jurowski: the rubato and rallentando before the fortissimo reprise of the Allegro’s first theme was supremely coordinated and coherent, and the piano’s subsequent dotted rhythms spoke strongly against the surging melodic pronouncements.  Later, there was a lovely ‘controlled unpredictability’ as the second subject encountered off-beat string gestures.

But, repeated visits to the concerto have not necessarily enabled soloist and orchestra to plough all the work’s theatrical furrows.  While Jurowski was eager to emphasise different moods and timbres, and to urge individual orchestral sections/players to create dramatic impetus, at times Trifonov seemed, expressively, to drift away from his accompanists.  Sitting ram-rod straight, he occasionally evinced an intellectualism and coolness which seemed to belie his own assertion that the concerto ‘seems almost like different scenes of an opera’.

Though the keys were exquisitely touched, their tonal depth and expressive intensity were not always fully plumbed.  However, if there was not quite enough passion or ‘theatre’ for this listener, there was some fabulous finger-work, the clarity and evenness often promoted by the Fazioli’s hard brightness.  The trills in the Andantino semplice reprise sparkled like cut diamonds, their incisive brilliance contrasting wonderfully with first nasally oboes, then warm horns.

Jurowski made his baton dance in the Allegro con fuoco but both here and in the first movement I felt that occasionally the impetus waned; there were repressed energies that teased and excited, but they never quite burst forth with limitless exuberance.

The concerto was prefaced by Stravinsky’s arrangements of three numbers (two of which were rejected and not orchestrated by Tchaikovsky) from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, which were made at Diaghilev’s request for Ballet Russes’ performance of the ballet in London in 1921.  Interestingly, the commission prompted what Stravinsky scholar Stephen Walsh describes as one of the composer’s ‘first serious essays in aesthetic propaganda’: one month before the performances The Times published an open letter from Stravinsky to Diaghilev ‘praising his initiative in staging this ballet at a time when Tchaikovsky was considered not quite artistically respectable’.

One could sense Stravinsky’s personal respect for his forebear, and his own classicising instincts, in these arrangements, and nowhere less than in the opening passages of Bluebird Pas-de-Deux (Act III) where the pristine and sparse, yet evocative, instrumentation pitted the telling presence of the timpani (Henry Baldwin) against the lyrical invention of solo flute and clarinet.  Indeed, lead flautist Juliette Bausor and Guest Principal clarinettist Sue Böhling were vivacious and virtuosic soloists throughout the three arrangements, in which Jurowski displayed innate appreciation of the theatricality of Stravinsky’s flexible rhythmic structures and slippages.  The Entr’acte to Act II of the ballet was noteworthy for the easy rhythmic sway which the conductor crafted.  It was pleasing, too, to be able to enjoy leader Peter Schoeman’s confident, extravagantly articulated solos – a warm, gnawing G string juxtaposed with gleaming flights of fancy at the top – accompanied by ever-sensitive piano brass.

Further homage to Tchaikovsky followed the interval, with Stravinsky’s 1928 ballet The Fairy’s Kiss, which Walsh describes as ‘directly based on pieces by Tchaikovsky (mainly the piano works and songs)’ though ‘far from the kind of straight transcription with added notes that we find in Pulcinella’.  The ballet’s narrative is adapted from The Fairy’s Kiss by Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy-tale, The Ice Maiden, and subverts The Sleeping Beauty into darker terrain.  Rudy, a young boy whose mother dies in the ice of the mountains, is himself saved by the kiss of an Ice-Maiden.  The latter, jealous that the boy escapes her embrace, pursues him and disrupts his wedding preparations by disguising herself as his fiancée, spiriting him away to her magical dwelling and claiming him forever by kissing the sole of his foot.

I’m not sure that a 45-minute ballet score, however deft the musical portraiture and narrative, makes its full impact with the choreographic realisation of the musical arguments.  But, that said, Jurowski delineated every contrasting instrumental colour and texture with characteristic care and command.  The sleight-of-hand transition effected by the interruption made by fluid, urgent horns to a solo string quartet with timpani underpinning, was a perfect exemplification of Jurowski’s natural narrative instincts.  Observing the pointillistic precision of the baton in Jurowski’s right hand against the sculpting curves and expressive moulding of his left hand made apparent the means of his magical and effortless musical storytelling.  The extremes of register and timbre were relished: low tuba against pure, high woodwind; echoing harp accompaniment to a rich-grained cello solo (Kristina Blaumane) which was transferred first to clarinet and then to flute.  And, towards the close, an exposed, quiet horn solo (redeeming a couple of earlier infelicities) underpinned by an infinitely extending bass pedal, the latter warming slightly with the delicate entries of the upper strings to effect a transfiguring conclusion.

It was all wonderfully evocative, if somewhat adrift in terms of the audience’s awareness of the dramatic context.  The next instalment of the LPO’s Stravinskian journey, on Wednesday 21st March and conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada, is titled Stravinsky meets the Classics and undoubtedly the juxtaposition of Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète and Capriccio for piano and orchestra with Weber’s Konzertstück for piano and orchestra and Schubert’s Symphony No.3 will prove equally thought-provoking.

Claire Seymour

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