London Philharmonic/Vassily Sinaisky – Symphonies by Prokofiev & Sibelius – Sol Gabetta plays Elgar

Symphony No.1 in D, Op.25 (Classical)
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43

Sol Gabetta (cello)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vassily Sinaisky

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 12 October, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Sol Gabetta. Photograph: Uwe ArensThe Russians are here and currently commandeering Elgar’s music. Twenty-four hours previously in the Royal Festival Hall Tugan Sokhiev had conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in Enigma Variations; now Vassily Sinaisky with the London Philharmonic was taking charge of the Cello Concerto. Not that this anglophile is a stranger to Elgar having conducted the majority of his orchestral works with the BBC Philharmonic (as well as Frank Bridge, Moeran, Parry and Walton). And previous generations of Russian conductors, especially Rozhdestvensky and the late Svetlanov, are notable Elgarians.

Elgar’s Cello Concerto was written in the aftermath of World War One. The soloist was Argentinean Sol Gabetta. The performance got off to a limp start with virtually nothing at the lower end of the spectrum, the LPO sporting just six cellos and four double basses. Come off it! We needed eight and six, at least. Such lightweight support lent a certain indifference throughout this inconsistent account. Gabetta was welcomingly intimate and unaffected if tonally rather unvaried and with emotions kept within parameters. Her sprightliness in the second movement, deftly played, was matched by her stealth and gutsy attack in the finale, and the slow movement was sensitive and without mawkishness. Yet she lent too much to nostalgia and regret at the expense of stoicism and acceptance, and through the long reflective section, before the brusque coda, she was overly resigned and static.

Vassily Sinaisky. Marco Borggreve Following this somewhat undemanding interpretation, Gabetta offered something unaccompanied from Latvian composer Peteris Vasks (born 1946) – lonely, frosty, fragile and, frankly, ephemeral, at least it showed that Gabetta commands a darker timbre than was ever found for the Elgar.

A similar lack of orchestral resource also informed the opening and endearing Prokofiev; here just five cellos and three double basses were thought sufficient. Not in this Hall. Dear oh dear, talk about an over-bright, treble-biased account with the use of a relatively full body of (lumped together) violins. Nevertheless, this was a lively, pointed and dynamic reading, not short on pathos, elegance and wit, and neatly played – it’s a joy to listen to but a tricky number to for musicians to negotiate.

The Sibelius finally found all of the LPO’s string-players in action, founded on eight double basses; that a few more at the lower end weren’t around for the first half now seemed even more regrettable. There’s no doubt that Sinaisky has a persuasive manner, and his geniality gets a good response from orchestras. But there’s also the suspicion of his sometimes being at one-remove emotionally from music that needs a helping hand – and this particular symphony by Sibelius (one of the supreme composers, let it be said), however populist and popular, is the weakest of his seven.

The opening movement was here a little too pastoral, too temperate, and the tempo, while very much the ‘norm’, would be thought complacent when set aside Robert Kajanus’s pioneering recording, which carries Sibelius’s imprimatur. If some of the playing, and not only in this movement, was a little impromptu, there were also admirable signs of increasing tension, something maintained by an unmarked but effective attacca into the next movement (a stratagem also favoured by Charles Groves and Kurt Sanderling), which avoids the opening movement seeming preludial, and intensifies the volatility and proud defiance of the second, which was movingly and excitingly brought off. The remaining two movements were less successful; the scherzo a little tame despite being up to speed, with the trio laboured despite the best efforts of oboist Ian Hardwick; and the finale, for all the expressive heartfelt passages and open-hearted growth, was a little halting, the coda not so much triumphant (the unshackling of Finland from the Russian yoke) as dominated by overloud and steely-sounding trumpets and trombones.

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