Spanish Overtures – No.1: Jota Aragonesa; No.2: Recollection of a Summer Night in Madrid
Cello Concerto in E-minor Op.58
Baba-Yaga (Fantasy Scherzo)
Symphony No.2 in C-minor, Op.17 (Little Russian) [Revised Version]
Steven Isserlis (cello)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: 7 December, 2016
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Folk melodies abounded during this generous and well-planned programme, an exciting concert. It was a good idea to commence with Glinka’s two colourfully scored Spanish Overtures (respectively 1845 and 1851), inspired by his visit to and temporary residence in the country. No.1 is known nowadays as Jota Aragonesa (Capriccio Brillante sur la Jota Aragonesa) and subsequently Glinka composed Souvenir d’une nuit d’été à Madrid. Both borrow Spanish tunes but the Jota melody in No.1 is Glinka’s own. It was a luxury to have two Overtures (some concerts do not even provide one) and the performances were vivid and rhythmically strong, castanets given almost solo status.
The peace of the opening Andante of Prokofiev’s Cello Concerto made a huge contrast. It was interesting that the tuba-player was moved to a prominent central position, for the composer’s rich underpinning of the harmonies is very dependent on this instrument. The opening of the initially furious Scherzo is striking; the forceful whirlwind attacks from the cellist are clearly intended to surprise. Here we had the opportunity to savour this surprise again because a couple of minutes in, the cello succumbed and Steven Isserlis had a broken string to contend with. He walked offstage, taking co-principal cellist Pei-Jee Ng with him; “he’s the expert” commented Isserlis. The repair was made and the Scherzo re-started. This is an interestingly shaped movement – the central section is more lyrical but remains agitated and as it progresses; the fierce interjections and the more songful moments at first oppose and then later combine.
The Finale is a ‘Theme and Variations’. Isserlis took command of the thematic material in dramatic fashion. The Variations are not classical in nature – the ‘Theme’ enters and frequently returns – each time it is followed by a different diversion but cohesion is achieved, even in the later orchestral upheavals, since its first four notes impose more and more forcefully. Isserlis received an enthusiastic reception for his superb rendition of this demanding work and Pei-Jee Ng was also invited to take a bow.
Composers such as Liadov and Mussorgsky have been inspired by the legend of the witch Baba-Yaga. She had many horrid characteristics but Alexander Dargomyzhsky (1813-69) concentrates on her less unpleasant side and, using Russian folksong as a basis, invites us to visualise the witch flying (presumably by broomstick) from the Volga to Riga. The music is full of delightfully quirky themes, brilliantly orchestrated. A very cheerful tune in suitably awkward rhythm is introduced by the bassoons. I imagine the LPO thoroughly enjoyed playing this work – there is something for everyone and the sound was often spectacular.
Tchaikovsky’s ‘Little Russian’ Symphony (with melodies from the Ukraine) found the LPO entirely in sympathy with its Principal Conductor. What could be more Russian than the bleak horn solo with which the work begins? Here it was played superbly by David Pyatt who was no less impressive later. Vladimir Jurowski’s interpretation was tense and exciting; he pressed the music forward with urgency and rhythmic strength. The Andante marziale was crisply played and beautifully poised and the rapid if at times beautifully hushed Scherzo was a credit to the LPO’s string section. The Finale is strange in that after the introductory Moderato the Allegro uses a brief tune that it is repeated over and over yet so skilful is the orchestration that it does not seem repetitious. Jurowski drove the music fierily and the more lyrical, albeit syncopated, second subject was swept into the mêlée with no hint of relaxation. Tension was held firmly to the very end and the playing was stunning.