The RPO play superbly for Charlotte Corderoy from what could be seen and heard at Cadogan Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Lyadov, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov: Martin James Bartlett (piano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Charlotte Corderoy (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London, 29.2.2024. (MBr)

Charlotte Corderoy rehearsing the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra © Tim Lutton

Lyadov – The Enchanted Lake
Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No.1
Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherazade

Several weeks ago, a colleague remarked on the sound from the balcony of Cadogan Hall as being like that of a ‘single-microphone Mercury recording … with the perfect balance of sound and detail’. I wish I could agree with such an assessment because my experience was more like wearing a pair of headphones where the balance was almost entirely shunted towards the left ear and removed from the right one. From my seat, a third of the orchestra had completely disappeared from view (and ear) – perhaps not a problem in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 (oh, maybe it was) but absolute death in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

The concerto first. I have heard the pianist, Martin James Bartlett, once before – but that was in recital. Should I infer from this brutal performance of Tchaikovsky’s B-flat minor concerto that Bartlett was responsible, the composer or where I was sat? A combination of all three, perhaps – although one advantage of looking down like a god towards the mortals on stage is that it looked as if Bartlett was using an iPad as a guide to get through this monolithic monster of a piece.

If this work is no longer unplayable it still remains something of a challenge and not just from a technical point of view. Nikolai Rubenstein thought the concerto was trite – a better word might be ugly. It has been possible to paper over some of the cracks, to add a bit of blush here and there (as Clifford Curzon managed to do). It was difficult to tell if Bartlett was doing this though. Even if one could not see the keyboard, he does not seem to be a pianist who always keeps his hands entirely close to it. There was an element of space between chords that removed the cluttered effect of Tchaikovsky’s score. It certainly wasn’t a measured performance; but nor was it one that tested the limits of his virtuosity.

Anatoly Lyadov’s The Enchanted Lake had opened the concert, something of a precursor to the closing work with its shimmering orchestration. The piece is brief; however, this performance conducted by Charlotte Corderoy (replacing Ben Glassberg) lingered somewhat. Corderoy has an undoubted talent for highlighting instrumental detail and focussing on (mostly) what matters but it is often at the expense of a balanced musical line. One gets the impression that she sees the whole picture but she doesn’t quite know how it should look in its complete form. The celesta, for example, was beautiful – it just didn’t quite seem to be part of everything else.

The Royal Philharmonic made, of course, one of the great recordings of Scheherazade with Sir Thomas Beecham – although for Herbert von Karajan playing it just once was more than enough. It is not an easy work to bring off. Its narrative implies a certain inventiveness and ability to create a story; but beyond that the musical episodes that Rimsky-Korsakov composes are somewhat unconnected to The Arabian Nights collection itself. If the composer ultimately decided to make a connection through the characters and events of the stories then the performance becomes the medium where the audience weaves it together into a narrative, and one that is largely controlled by what the conductor and orchestra are doing.

I think Charlotte Corderoy was for the most part quite effective at doing this, although her Scheherazade (the solo violinist, David Adams) only really became beguiling and sensual (and given the context, perhaps where it mattered most) in the final section; elsewhere, he seemed a little rattled. Corderoy’s tendency to linger made the ‘The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship’ seem like an epic voyage – although the power here was less of surging strings and brass and more of a hefty anchor causing some drag against the ocean floor. ‘The Story of the Kalendar Prince’ was either too slow, or just not fast enough – and it needs a careful balance of both.

‘The Young Prince and Princess’ was beautifully done – even if what I was hearing was a somewhat less rich version of it. But nothing quite prepared me for Corderoy’s conducting of the ‘Shipwreck on the Rock’. It was thrilling, taken at a more than brisk (vivo) pace with the sound of brass cracking clearly to symbolise the splintering of the ship against the rock. One doesn’t always hear the harp push through the orchestra here, but Corderoy made it happen. The end of the work felt spare.

There can be no doubt that the Royal Philharmonic played superbly for Charlotte Corderoy – and I think she has much to say about the music she conducts. Scheherazade is really not that easy to bring off well. One cannot blame her for what I did – or didn’t – hear and in that sense this was a hugely frustrating concert and not an experience I intend to repeat at Cadogan Hall.

Marc Bridle

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