A fabulous programme by the Corinthian Orchestra doesn’t quite live up to expectations

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky: Petr Limonov (piano), Corinthian Orchestra, Michael Seal (conductor). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 19.5.2024. (MBr)

Petr Limonov rehearsing for the concert with the Corinthian Orchestra

Ravel – La valse
Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No.3
Stravinsky – Rite of Spring 

On paper this concert was a dream: La valse, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.3 and The Rite of Spring. But it would have been a demanding one for any professional orchestra, let alone an amateur one that plays orchestral concerts once a season. The Corinthian Orchestra is unquestionably an outstanding ensemble, and some of the playing was just ravishing, but there were problems here – many not of their own making. La valse and The Rite of Spring don’t just need a great orchestra, they also need a great conductor and that, I am afraid, they didn’t have in Michael Seal.

The Queen Elizabeth Hall was something of a blessing for this concert – and it favoured this orchestra’s tone enormously (except for some incorrect woodwind dynamics in the Stravinsky). Ravel’s La valse has sometimes been seen as some kind of sardonic metaphor for the decaying theme of the Straussian waltz that emerged in post-war Europe. The conductor, Michael Seal, in one sense did focus on an element of parody: textures were incredibly lush, the string tone was velvety – if anything the decadence of it was more like the vast canvas of opulence one hears in early Schoenberg; it was the wrong kind of Viennese. But tempi were on the slow side, too – this was a performance that got rather stuck in its own groove.

The opening mist of sound was quite magical – and the harps running through it were also rather special – but it was Seal’s inability to do much with dramatic climaxes that rather made this performance spiral less than it might have. Brass were very fine – they just weren’t extravagant enough, they didn’t run rampant through the orchestra with sufficient power. Ironically, the coda – that wonderful danse macabre – was almost perfectly done; whipped up to a frenzy of swirling madness it sounded genuinely disconcerting. In the end it was just enough to rescue a performance that was so often beautiful despite hanging fire.

I have heard my fair share of performances of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.3 in recent years – and reviewed many of them for Seen and Heard. What was unusual about this one, given by the Russian-born pianist Petr Limonov, was how close it came to being interpretatively ideal – Rachmaninoff’s score markings were quintessentially played as they were written. Unusual also was the more intimate approach to this concerto, the less dynamic course he took through it and a strikingly less romantic tone. It made the playing of the shorter cadenza in the first movement musically right.

Limonov takes a rather brisk view of this concerto – but it is not brisk in the way that the performance by Kirill Gerstein was that I reviewed last year. Limonov also displayed more subtle colours at the keyboard – perhaps a nod to his teacher, Maria João Pires – rather than the more mono one that one got with Gerstein. But volume matters, and Limonov is not the loudest of players and on occasion he seemed overwhelmed by the orchestra – but where it mattered he was quite superb. The over-hand low D-flat in the second movement, for example, wasn’t simply hit – it was punched; in the final movement, the triple notes before reh.62 had both the staccato and the accent, and these were nailed to the keyboard.

If the performance was low on poetry, it wasn’t always low on imagination. The first meno moso in the Alla breva was done with considerable rubato – Rachmaninoff doesn’t necessarily imply that it should be done with any at all (or if you are Mikhael Pletnev you just take it out altogether) but performances are strikingly better with it. There was no question this felt like a virtuoso performance; individual touches were exquisite, the vision fresh and expressive.

The Rite of Spring after the interval struggled to be all of these things all of the time. Some parts of this performance were quite superb; others quite fell apart. There was, in fact, little to quibble with in the ‘Adoration of the Earth’. True, some of the woodwind playing struggled to be projected with the right dynamics. And the ‘Augurs of Spring’ really didn’t open with anything like the brutal, savage dissonance you expected: the bows on the strings of both the cellos and double basses were simply not carved out like granite. ‘Spring Round’ didn’t always sound as if it was going quite the right way either. Having said that, the ‘Procession of the Sage’ and ‘Dance of the Earth’ were both compelling – both thrillingly played and spinning into meltdown.

There was a magical mystery to the opening of ‘Introduction’ to ‘The Sacrifice’. With ‘Glorification of the Chosen One’ there are what I think are two approaches to that 11/4 measure that opens it: roughly, the Boulez and Levine methods. One is roughly near Stravinsky’s tempo, the other nowhere near it. Seal took the Boulez one – and thrilling it was, too, with both timpani and bass drum perfectly synced.

Where this Rite struggled was in the ‘Sacrificial Dance’. As so many performances have before it, Seal got the transition from the ‘Ritual action of the Ancestors’ to the ‘Sacrificial Dance’ not quite synchronised so the rhythms sagged and with it the energy of the playing. A little too pedestrian, it just sounded too metrically square. Problematic too was the timpani – curiously measured as if fermatas were being inserted between bars when they shouldn’t have been. There was no problem with the bass drum here (and the change of mallets was noticeably well done) but the hesitancy of the timpani, the lack of contrast between mezzo forte and sforzando and some underpowered stick blows did little to give the music dramatic impact.

The Rite of Spring is a series of complexities: it is dance, and it is a work that is capable of grandeur and unrivalled intensity. It is a demanding one for the timpani and percussion sections and for an orchestra who clearly do not play this work often shortcomings can be overlooked in someways. There were superb things here. I did wonder, however, if a different conductor might have made things a little different. The Corinthian Orchestra deserved a little more adrenaline and Michael Seal was not best suited to give them that.

Marc Bridle

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