Heart-Warmingly High Musical Standards from Jurowski and LPO at the BBC Proms

19/08/2019

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Prom 41 – Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Lyadov, Glazunov: Alexander Ghindin (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 17.8.2019. (AK)

Vladimir Jurowski’s all-Russian concert with the London Philharmonic Orchestra consisted of high art, subtle education and a masterclass in conducting.

The programme consisted of arguably lesser known works by Russian composers. I for one was new to all the pieces although not to their composers.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s suite Mlada was shown in the programme notes with several dates, including the year 1872 when the idea of opera-ballet was planned as a collective composition by the Mighty Five, a group of five Russian composers (Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov). The project was abandoned but Rimsky-Korsakov returned to the theme and wrote his own complete opera-ballet during 1889-1890. Over a decade later, in 1903, he created a short version that is the five-part Mlada suite. It is puzzling why the Proms presented this suite as being world-premiered by Henry Wood in 1898 that is five years before Rimsky-Korsakov compiled it. Apparently in 1898 Henry Wood indeed premiered a Mlada suite of some kind but Rimsky-Korsakov’s definitive five-movement suite of 1903 was not performed by Henry Wood until 1919.

The LPO fielded a very large orchestra for the Mlada suite. I did not count all the players but they did have ten basses, twelve cellos and three harps; all of these numbers rather unusual on the concert platform. In spite of the vast forces, Jurowski and consequently the orchestra produced a very sensitive performance. Starting with the dream-like upward passages of wind soloists, copied by the strings, the mood of the Introduction, apparently a portrait of Mlada, was beautifully set. The three dance movements – Bohemian, Lithuanian and Indian respectively – were presented with tightly controlled rhythms, transparency of all motives and clear but gentle contrasts of loud and soft passages. The last movement, Procession of the Nobles, was distinguished by the crystal clear (and pitch-perfect) fanfares by the three trumpets, three trombones and the tuba player. The final increase of dynamics and tension in this ¾ March-like movement was spell-binding and uplifting.

Moral arguments can be made both for and against performing a composition which, in due course, the composer intensely disliked and substantially revised. In either case, experiencing the composition of an 18-year-old who later developed into a significant composer is educational even if not necessarily very exciting. It so happens that the LPO conducted by Jurowski and Russian pianist Alexander Ghindin  – performing the original version of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.1, composed in 1891, in favour of the heavily revised version of 1917 – presented a thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating performance. Both Jurowski and Ghindin were totally committed to showcase the composition at its best. The orchestra was much smaller than in the preceding Mlada suite – for instance, this time only six basses were used – thus allowing exquisite exchanges of dialogues between solo piano and wind, including unusually gentle horn passages. Ghindin, in his Prom debut, manifested full control and controlled passion without any showmanship. His dedication to every note of the virtuoso material and his mastery of cantilena playing on the piano keyboard did more than justice to Rachmaninov’s first version of the concerto (as to Ghindin’s encore of Rachmaninov’s Moments musicaux). My only unease was caused by the rather long break between the preceding Mlada suite (of 18 minutes duration) and the concerto: it took quite a while to clear the stage, to bring in the piano and to rearrange orchestra seating. I assume that, in deciding the order of the programme, musical consideration overrode practicalities but, in the event, the magic of the chain of beautiful performances was broken more than I would have preferred.

Baba-Yaga and Kikimora, both by Lyadov, gave opportunities for the performers to tell stories without the aid of the words (and gave the audience the chance to get to know Russian fairy tales). In Baba-Yaga Jurowski was more physical with his conducting, occasionally even jumping up and down although ever so slightly. Jurowski’s story-telling of Kikimora produced magnificent wind solos and sensitive string responses. Jurowski’s orchestral diminuendo on conclusion was just as magic and uplifting as his orchestral crescendo on conclusion of the Mlada suite. There was no whipping of emotions; every moment fitted into the organic growth or decline of the overall design.

Lyadov’s Apocalypse proved again the skills of LPO’s forces. The drama of brass (including two tubas), numerous percussions (including a huge side drum) and two sets of timpani with two players (bringing the Apocalypse to conclusion at the end of the piece) left us in no doubt about the story. On the other side of the spectrum, we had an Orthodox chant presented by a group of wind instruments, alternating with mournful accompanying motives on the violas.

In Glazunov’s Symphony No.5 the tuba and trombones are integral to the tunes; already at the opening, the tuba plays the same melody as the strings. As through all the pieces during the concert, solo flute and solo oboe are of essence, as are the horns starting the Andante (third movement). I admit being a bit puzzled by Glazunov’s repeat of a short melodic motive several times in the first movement but I enjoyed the Mendelsohn-like soundscape of the second movement (Scherzo) complete with the angelic sound of what sounded like celeste (or was it the glockenspiel?). The last movement, with the tuba again leading with the melody, could have been tailor-made for Jurowski and his orchestra: it was hard to think that any other conductor/band could present such a convincing and exhilarating but fully disciplined account of this Allegro maestoso Animato conclusion to the symphony.

The LPO was deeply impressive throughout. Not a single note out of the tune or roughly played, yet the countless wind (including horn) and brass solos could have given opportunities for many misplaced notes. Like their conductor Jurowski, the orchestra was clearly fully committed, fully disciplined and of heart-warmingly high musical standard.

Agnes Kory

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