Beguiling Philharmonia programme crossing national borders and mixing musical genres

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Glinka, Kapustin, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov: Frank Dupree (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Santtu-Matias Rouvali (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 7.3.2024. (CSa)

Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducts the Philharmonia © Sisi Burn

Glinka Capriccio brillante (Spanish Overture No.1 Jota Aragonesa’)
Nikolai Kapustin – Piano Concerto No.5, Op.72
Borodin – Symphony No.2 in B minor
Rimsky-Korsakov Capriccio espagnol, Op.34

It was one of those exceptional evenings at London’s Royal Festival Hall. First came a generous (and free) pre-concert recital in which the Philharmonia’s Joint Concert Master, Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, Principal clarinettist Mark van de Wiel, and No.2 cello chair Karen Stephenson came together with pianist Tom Poster to give a luminously intense and deeply moving performance of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. After Poster took his leave the others joined their colleagues in the orchestra under Santtu-Matias Rouvali for the main event: a boldly programmed evening which crossed national borders and musical genres. A Russian take on Spanish dance, and a Ukrainian’s homage to American Jazz were its central themes. Works by Glinka and Rimsky-Korsakov topped and tailed this concert.

The decision to pair Glinka’s Capriccio brillante (Spanish Overture No.1 ‘Jota Aragonesa’) which opened the concert, with Rimsky’s Capriccio espagnol, which closed it, was logical and enlightening. These two composers were steeped in the musical traditions of Russian nationalism but each, drawn by the exoticism of distant lands, looked beyond the confines of their country of birth. Glinka moved to Spain in 1845 and settled in the village of Valladolid where he immersed himself in local culture. Basing his Capriccio on a popular dance or Jota, his score captured the shifting colours and tones of Spanish folk music. After a majestic introduction, pizzicato strings and woodwind struck up an infectious dance in triple time, in which the rhythmic click of Paul Stoneman’s castanets evoked clicking heels and clapping hands, Heidi Krutzen’s strumming harp providing a suitably guitar-like accompaniment.

The fact that Rimsky had never set foot in Spain did not inhibit his ability to conjure an authentically Iberian soundscape. It is said that his Capriccio espagnol was inspired by a collection of Spanish folk songs which came into his possession in the 1880s. Rouvali and his players certainly captured Rimsky’s brilliant orchestral inventiveness. A rich carpet of woodwinds and strings embellished by tambourines and triangles led to a sparkling account of Alborado, an Asturian folk dance on which Rimsky based his first movement, and to which Visontay contributed some outstanding cadenzas in the work’s central movements. An intensely paced Fandango asturiano brought the piece to an appropriately vibrant conclusion.

Borodin’s folk tune filled Symphony No.2 occupied much of the concert’s second half. Distinctly nationalistic in style, it draws on Slavic myth and legendary heroes who saved Mother Russia from her enemies. Yet, as one of Borodin’s early biographers observed, however characteristically national his music may be, its beauty ‘will penetrate the hearts of all receptive listeners regardless of outlook’. Rouvali, with avian grace, drew a wonderfully cohesive account from the orchestra. A startlingly emphatic burst of the Philharmonia’s blazing brass and strings characterised the first movement and led to a Scherzo of diaphanous beauty. The third movement Andante with its gorgeous horn melody (sumptuously played here by Principal Ben Hulme) gave way to a razor-sharp Finale full of rhythmic surprises.

Frank Dupree © Ralph Steckelbach

Thrilling though the Borodin was, the heart of this concert and the real surprise of the evening lay in a revelatory first UK performance of the late Nikolai Kapustin’s Piano Concerto No.5 billed, somewhat elliptically, as ‘Santtu and Frank Dupree in a Jazz Concerto’. Ukraine-born Kapustin studied piano at the Moscow Conservatoire and, after graduating in 1961, spent the next eleven years on the road with a jazz orchestra. Like his earlier piano concertos, the fifth, written over 30 years ago, fuses American jazz and blues idioms with Bachian classical music structures. Mark Twain claimed that it took him at least three weeks to write a good impromptu speech. One suspects it took Kapustin considerably longer to compose the highly complex ‘improvisational’ keyboard passages which abound in this swinging, highly energised work and which, over a space of 22 minutes, lift it into the virtuosic stratosphere. It is hard to reduce Kapustin’s unique musical concoction into words, but if you take a pinch of Errol Garner and a table spoonful of Prokofiev, a large measure of Oscar Peterson and a cup of Stravinsky, blend with some Gershwin and sprinkle some big band Hollywood stardust, there you have it.

Frank Dupree, the 32-year-old wunderkind pianist performed with dizzying brilliance, supported with panache by a big band style Philharmonia. A lengthy standing ovation more than justified the seemingly spontaneous but obviously well-rehearsed encore – a riotous, pulsating arrangement of Duke Ellington’s Caravan. Dupree, jamming on piano or alternating with Jacob Brown on bongos, was on this occasion joined by a small troupe of Philharmonia players on cajón, wood blocks, triangle, drum kit, shaker and bass. As if this wasn’t enough, the ensemble was completed by Rouvali who, swapping his baton for a cow bell, proved his percussionist chops. The evening, joyous and inclusive, served as a timely reminder that music can take many different forms and its transcendent power knows no national boundaries.

Chris Sallon

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