Night on a Bare Mountain
Piano Concerto in F sharp minor, Op.20
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14
Yevgeny Sudbin (piano)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: David Truslove
Reviewed: 26 February, 2016
Venue: The Anvil, Basingstoke, Hampshire, England
Alexander Vedernikov (formerly of the Bolshoi Theatre and currently Chief Conductor of the Odense Symphony Orchestra) took the helm of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for a programme of 19th-century repertoire. Mussorgsky and Berlioz make an obvious coupling, but Scriabin’s Piano Concerto, despite the presence of Yevgeny Sudbin, merely confirmed why this early piece is a rare event. Flanked by such original and vibrant works, it appeared, on this occasion at least, to seem derivative and colourless. It will certainly never become the guilty pleasure that is The Poem of Ecstasy.
Completed in just a few days during the autumn of 1896, the Piano Concerto contains little suggestion of Scriabin’s later more harmonically advanced pieces. Lyricism and languor are the significant elements, but the work is often let down by excessive passagework in the solo part. Pianist and conductor made the most of the thematic differences in the first movement, bringing plenty of ardour to the opening melody and playfulness to the secondary scherzando idea. There were stirring moments, too, but when these were shared, the orchestra dominated. Sudbin’s poetic sensitivity could be heard to advantage in the inoffensive slow movement, touching in its poignancy. Of the Finale, Vedernikov negotiated its contours well enough, but the ideas never quite generate enough drama and the few climaxes felt mechanical. A shame no encore was offered, such as one of Scriabin’s inimitable subsequent examples.
The evening began with Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain, his celebration of the Devil, in the revised version by Rimsky-Korsakov. It took a few bars to settle, the triplet quavers at the outset not quite unanimous, the strings more tentative than threatening. Thereafter, it was an assured and well-paced performance, woodwinds (with suitably shrill piccolo) and brass adding plenty of crisp articulation and muscle when required. Momentum was sustained throughout, and the transition to the calmer closing section was superbly achieved. Violins here were bowling-green smooth and Kevin Banks (clarinet) and Anna Pyne (flute) made very fine contributions.
Following the interval there was much to admire in Symphonie fantastique, although much of this was in the final two movements. The dreams outlined in the opening ‘Réveries’ didn’t quite conjure opium-induced hallucinations, where a more veiled dynamic at the start might have created more mystery. There was, however, effective contrast between despair and elation in the Allegro and some very tidy string-playing accompanying the first appearance of the idée fixe. Had Vedernikov produced more flowing gestures in the ‘ball’ scene (looking at times more like an automaton) it might have felt less earthbound; violins never quite finding that gossamer quality needed to evoke swirling gowns and riotous fun. In the ‘Scène aux champs’ Rebecca Kozam (cor anglais)) and Edward Kay (off-stage oboe) were eloquent shepherds but too often the music’s stillness was interrupted by audience coughing.
From the sinister entry of the two sets of timpani the rendition shifted up a gear, the BSO thoroughly enjoying its ‘March to the Scaffold’. This was wonderfully paced, with confident, gutsy playing, brass almost braying and leading towards a powerful execution. Then the BSO hurled itself at the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ as if possessed, playing with abandonment, woodwinds gleefully grotesque, and responding almost savagely to the frenzy that Berlioz and Vedernikov had cooked up.