LPO/Jurowski – Pulcinella & Carmen

Pulcinella – Suite
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Carmen Suite

Leonidas Kavakos (violin)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 27 September, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Dedicated to the memory of the recently deceased Sir Malcolm Arnold, the London Philharmonic’s one-time principal trumpet, one suspects that – in the best tradition of Celtic ‘wakes’ – Arnold would have rather enjoyed the party. The programme, a musical sandwich comprising two very different ballet scores (albeit both look to earlier times for inspiration) with Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto as the filling was certainly imaginative and superbly played.

Stravinsky’s ‘take’ on Pergolesi (and other composers from the Italian Baroque) was completed in its original ballet form (and including three singers) in 1920. Pulcinella was one of three works commissioned by Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes, the others being The Good-Humoured Ladies (Scarlatti-Tommasini) and Astuzie Femini to (Cimarosa-Respighi). All three creations are based on music by Neapolitan composers – Stravinsky described Pulcinella as ‘a ballet with song’ and ‘after Pergolesi’, an interesting distinction since in certain respects he sticks closely to the originals (whether by Pergolesi or not). The individual pieces have sometimes been lifted whole and for the most part Stravinsky follows the bass line, albeit with his own distinctive harmonies on top.

With a ‘classical’ orchestra of 18 strings plus string quartet and winds (including trumpet and trombone), Stravinsky’s score is very much un hommage, respectful of the originals (unlike Shchedrin’s re-working of Bizet’s “Carmen”). Under Vladimir Jurowski the suite received an ideally crisp reading which made the most of the music’s deadpan wit and not only in the hilarious ‘Vivo’ with its grotesque duet for trombone and double bass (expertly played by Mark Templeton and Kevin Rundell respectively).

However, the evening’s high-point was Leonidas Kavakos’s magnificent reading of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. This was a cause for celebration: the work was played absolutely straight without any resort to the kitsch hamming-up to which it is sometimes subjected by ‘celebrity’ violinists and, as listened to in the confines of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the balance between soloist and orchestra were near-ideal in music where balance is frequently a problem. Jurowski and Kavakos very clearly of one mind, and with the LPO at its finest, this was a rare fusion of all concerned. Without any resort to histrionics, Kavakos played with real fire – the first movement cadenza was astonishing, but what was just as impressive was the way in which Kavakos’s intonation held up to the movement’s end – where other players struggle, Kavakos danced. An encore, a Caprice by Paganini, was perfectly judged for the occasion and perfectly executed.

After such riches, although brilliantly played and fun for a while, Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite (aka Carmen Ballet) came as something of a let down. Written for Maya Plisetskaya, the Bolshoi’s celebrated prima ballerina, who happens to be Shchedrin’s wife, the ballet was banned by Soviet officialdom after its premiere in 1967 on the slightly contradictory grounds that (a) “it was an insult to Bizet’s masterpiece”, and (b) because of the overtly sexual treatment of the title role (which for most people is the whole point of Carmen!).

Using a full complement of strings and a plethora of percussion instruments, Shchedrin fashioned a ballet incorporating not only “Carmen” but also some of Bizet’s music for “L’Arlésienne” and “La jolie fille de Perth”. As an imaginatively scored tour of Bizet’s best tunes the work is a knockout and it was certainly given a performance of the utmost dash. As a concert piece (that is without the choreography) it fails to convince, losing impetus about two-thirds of the way through and leaving one with the distinct feeling that a very large sledgehammer has been used to crack a nut.

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