Stravinsky described The Firebird (1910), his first notable score, as “Rimsky-Korsakov with pepper” and the debt is obvious in the orchestration. There are also echoes of Scriabin and Glazunov, thoughts prompted by this compelling reading given by Krzysztof Urbański and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
The complete score can be a tricky to pull off when devoid of its theatrical and choreographic setting, hence the three Suites that Stravinsky then made. Urbański and the RPO conjured mystery and atmosphere, with sinister strings and glinting brass early on, the conductor patient yet holding the piece together. Speeds were generally well-chosen and, for once, the ‘Infernal Dance’ avoided rush. The RPO produced playing of tonal opulence, with fine solos, particularly from flautist Emer McDonough’s and bassoonist Benedikt Schobel. Urbański brought out much subtle detail and the quiet playing of the strings depicting the breaking of Kastchei’s spell was transfixing. The final horn solo had grace and the cumulative splendour of the closing bars was exhilarating rather than pompous. Urbański is a lithe figure on the podium with a physically expressive manner and obvious charisma. The RPO needs a new Principal Conductor – this programme was originally for Charles Dutoit – and, on this showing, Urbański would be a credible candidate.
Earlier he and the RPO had delivered Stravinsky’s Scherzo à la russe in brisk, natty style. Originally scored for Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, Urbański, using the symphony revision, made the most of the wheezy barrel-organ effects. And in support of Kirill Gerstein in the ‘Emperor’, he went for mellowness rather than heroic attack and, although some more rehearsal would not have gone amiss, nuance and detail was not amiss. Gerstein, powerful with a big technique and projection, can also provide carefully graded tone, as he did here, restrained and reflective with a feeling for architecture. After the opening flourishes he was animated without being hectic and there was life in every phrase, and he had power to spare in the coda. The subsequent clapping didn’t aid concentration but the beautiful veiled quality to the strings at the opening of the songful slow movement re-focussed attention. Gerstein made light of the Finale, meeting the challenges with assurance and stamina, and his brilliant encore was Chopin’s A-flat Waltz, Opus 42.