BBC Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Vedernikov Total Immersion: The Rite of Spring; Alexei Volodin plays Chopin

Weber, orch. Berlioz
Invitation to the Dance, Op.65
Andante spianato & Grande polonaise brillante, Op.22
Prince Igor – Polovtsian Dances
Chopin, orch. Stravinsky
Waltz in E flat, Op.18 (Grande valse brillante)
The Rite of Spring

Alexei Volodin (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Alexander Vedernikov

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 22 September, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Alexander Vedernikov. Photograph: Marco BorggreveThe BBC Symphony Orchestra opened its 2013-14 Season with a Total Immersion event, focussed on Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and once passed the talk and films (about the Ballets Russes and then the infamous premiere of The Rite itself) it welcomed back Alexander Vedernikov for the evening concert. He and the BBCSO have really hit it off in recent years, and did so again, save this time with variable interpretative results.

This dance-related programme opened with Carl Maria von Weber’s piano piece (1819) as orchestrated by Hector Berlioz in 1841. Graham Bradshaw offered an alluring cello solo to take us into the ballroom and Vedernikov and the musicians gave a bright-as-a-button account of Berlioz’s glinting and hearty scoring, as colourful and dynamic as one could wish for, so a real shame that some in the audience who didn’t know the music but clapped anyway wrecked the potentially magical effect of the return of the opening music and Mr Bradshaw’s elegance.

Alexei Volodin. Photograph: Marco BorggreveThen Alexei Volodin gave us a few minutes of his time (but was it really worth it?) for some Chopin, the solo Andante spianato (smooth) – rhythmically free and rubato-ridden but without old-world charm – and a rushed Polonaise shorn of its titular grandeur, the orchestra accompanying deftly nonetheless. A shame not to have the BBC Symphony Chorus along for the Polovtsian Dances, for Vedernikov may not then have felt the need to exaggerate: the opening languor was well enough, the later barbaric splendour (or do I mean crude!) less so, the problem being both the overly-bright Barbican Hall acoustic (which seemed even more so here) and the conductor’s attempt to turn the BBCSO into an old-fashioned Soviet ensemble, understandable in one sense, forced in another.

After the interval and before The Rite, Stravinsky’s brash and quirky scoring of a Chopin waltz, which does neither composer any favours despite this well-played and characterful outing for it. As for The Rite itself, Vedernikov (now as much choreographer as conductor) more or less managed to avoid the pitfalls that performances of this seminal masterpiece can fall into – too fast, too loud being the basic ones – but was not always convincing, particularly in tempo changes, some being precipitate and losing the work’s all-important sense of ritual; occasionally it was faux-Romantic (looking back to The Firebird) and jazzy (ahead to the Ebony Concerto). But it was exciting, vividly detailed and played familiarly if not always securely and in committed response to Vedernikov’s shimmies and semaphore, Graham Sheen’s opening bassoon solo being pregnantly expressive and the final ‘Sacrificial Dance’ whipped up as an exhilarating disco of death, which ultimately hit the floor unanimously, Vedernikov’s arms spread-eagled and pointing heavenwards.

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