United Kingdom Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky: Johannes Moser (cello), RSNO Junior Chorus, Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Thomas Søndergård (conductor), Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, 15.12.2018. (GT)
Prokofiev – A Winter Bonfire
Tchaikovsky – Variations on a Rococo Theme; Excerpts from The Nutcracker
With this concert the RSNO under Søndergård closed their 2018 year with an attractive programme highlighting the orchestra’s affinity with romantic Russian repertoire. The opening was the rarely heard piece by Prokofiev and this set up the evening marvellously with its colourful ideas written for children in the composer’s final years. Of course this was recorded more than twenty years ago when Neeme Järvi was here, but it all helped the festive spirit with the children’s chorus taking part. The original version was with narrator however here the more customary variant of choir and orchestra was used: the original texts in French or Russian were now in English translation. In whatever language, the simplicity of Prokofiev’s writing comes across equally well. The opening was distinguished by one musician acting as a stationmaster blowing his whistle and setting the music in motion. We then heard bright rhythms, joyful, and upbeat, and remarkable too was the switching of play between the different string sections. In the second movement (‘Snow outside the window’) there was a wintry peaceful harmony inflecting the music, that was playful too; the third – a beautiful waltz with the children dancing on the ice – had lyrical simplistic music, typical of the composer’s late period when he had long abandoned the dissonances of his early career. There could be heard recycling of some of Prokofiev’s winning tunes from his ballets Cinderella and The Tale of the Stone Flower. In the fourth part (‘The Bonfire’) the violas were centre stage with the charming horn evoking the rising flames from the bonfire, and the children’s chorus acclaiming their happiness at warming before the fire they have built and then singing English Marshak’s poem as the ‘Chorus of the pioneers’. In the sixth movement (‘Winter evening’) as the children reflect we heard lyrical strings, with outstanding clarinet and flute solos. In the seventh movement (‘March’), a racy tune on percussion, spiky on the violins and finally a return of the train bringing the young pioneers home after their visit to the collective farm. With its winning, upbeat melodies, it is easy to understand why it was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1951. Special credit must be given to Anne Murphy, interim director of the RSNO Junior Chorus.
Johannes Moser is the orchestra’s resident musician this season and here he brought out all the deft harmonies from Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, in the version most often heard by Wilhelm Fitzenhagen. There was a gentle yet arresting opening with the cello was deeper in its tonal colour and the woodwind sang light cheerful melodies. For one variation, Moser played with the orchestra leader Sharon Roffman in an enticing passage, and later there was an extended solo by Moser, of great beauty, intense vitality and with underlying melancholia. He is communicative with both players and his audience and it was all enhanced by delightful virtuosic woodwind playing from Rebecca Whitener’s clarinet and Anna Wolstenholme’s flute. I often felt I was hearing this piece for the first time, so refreshing was Moser’s interpretation; he seems to find new depths from what is a well-known piece, finding the Russian soul which some others lack. The final variations were quite magical, ending this work in celebratory mood. As his encore, the German/Canadian cellist played the Sarabande from the Third Bach Cello Suite.
To round off this final concert of the year, Søndergård had chosen Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker with excerpts rather than the orchestral suites. At once one was impressed by the delightful harmonies because of great playing across the whole orchestra; the famous ‘Waltz of the Snowflakes’ followed by ‘The Kingdom of the Sweets’ was immaculately played with the harp, celeste and horn prominent in sparkling orchestral colour. An important aspect of this evening was the conductor bringing out the symphonism of this ostensibly ballet score, making it a symphony of Tchaikovsky’s reflections on the happiness of childhood, in which we heard some delicious woodwind playing again, with flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon all bringing out the splendid colours of this delightful score. The contribution of the RSNO Youth Chorus was remarkable once more with their high voices and seasonal dress, bringing further festive spirit to the occasion. All in all this was a wonderful concert confirming the remarkable renaissance of the orchestra under Thomas Søndergård as their music director. In between Christmas and the New Year, Søndergard will take the RSNO on their second tour of China, one could hardly imagine better ambassadors for Scotland. One looks ahead to 2019 with optimism.
For more about the RNSO click here.