IgorFest – Apollo & Petrushka

Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments
Petrushka [1947 version]

Kirill Gerstein (piano)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 31 October, 2006
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Phase three of “IgorFest”, the project to perform all of Stravinsky’s music in Birmingham between 2005 and 2008, concluded here with a neatly-programmed concert featuring two very different ballets and what is effectively the composer’s ‘first piano concerto’. (Historical point: substituting the latter piece for Symphonies of Wind Instruments gives the programme of the Stravinsky Centenary Concert that the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra gave with Simon Rattle back in 1982.)

While it has never lacked for admirers, Apollo (Apollon musagète in its original French title) is not so often encountered in performance these days – perhaps because its studied poise is thought to be too underwhelming for present-day audiences. Yet this typically deft synthesis of French Baroque formal clarity and Parisian 1920s’ expressive chic is the most approachable of the major works with which Stravinsky confirmed his neo-classical credentials; through a medium – the string orchestra – he divests of its late-Romantic associations for the purpose. A coming-together of the old and the older-made-new that Sakari Oramo brought out strongly in an account whose lucid restraint did not preclude more overt emotion. Thus the dances for each of the muses were lithely dispatched, and that for all four dancers had irresistible verve, while Apollo’s solos had a calm grandeur and his ‘pas de deux’ with Terpsichore a melting allure. Framing all of these, the first scene built in a superbly-sustained expressive curve to the violin solo (handled with aplomb by new leader Laurence Jackson) ushering in the main ballet, with the fatalism of the ‘apothéose’ more affecting for its intense calm.

A fine performance, then, and that of the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (also including double basses and timpani) was scarcely less so. A work not so much problematic as unlovable, its tensile writing for soloist and ensemble alike amounts to a ‘statement of intent’ within the context of Stravinsky’s music from the mid-1920s: a piece, moreover, with its origins in something that he himself could play as part of a nascent performing career. Few pianists have tackled it with other than ruthless efficiency, but Kirill Gerstein (who took part in the memorable account of “Les noces” just a few nights earlier) found deadpan seriousness in the slow introduction – perfectly complemented by the Allegro’shectic abandon. An unsuspected poetry surfaced in the slow movement (though not even Symphony Hall’s acoustic could open-out the textural density of the orchestral tuttis), and the finale’s steely energy was tempered by a humour that won through in the breezy final pay-off. Whether Gerstein plays it at all regularly, his conviction suggested the concerto may have found a timely champion.

Petrushka is hardly a work in need of the same advocacy, and has featured regularly in the CBSO’s schedule over the years. The present performance took most of the first two tableaux to get going: the initial evocation of the Shrovetide Fair was relatively unatmospheric, and the ‘Russian Dance’ had a manufactured liveliness. A welling-up of tension towards the end of the scene in Petrushka’s cell, however, signalled a greater expressive potency that carried over into the simmering encounter between the Ballerina and the Blackamoor and a final scene whose set pieces were vividly delineated, with the anti-hero’s ‘death’ tangibly conveyed and his spectral reappearance casting its lingering pall (thanks in part to near-flawless trumpet-playing from Jonathan Holland). A pity, though, that Oramo did not revive the 1911 orchestration (favoured by such as Abbado, Boulez and Dutoit): its greater subtlety of texture and sonority might well have accorded better with his view of the ballet overall.

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