Francesca da Rimini – Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, Op.32
Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat, Op.107
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36
Guy Johnston (cello)
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers
Reviewed: 8 May, 2014
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
It’s always instructive to hear orchestras play their native music: performance styles vary between countries, and pieces often sound very different accordingly. So it was with the Tchaikovsky mainstays offered here, though with mixed results. So, although a fully-formed narrative did not emerge for Francesca da Rimini – and launching a concert with this work is not an easy feat – there were certainly many ‘moments’, Yuri Simonov and his Moscow Philharmonic players plunging depths of blackness, and the hellish conclusion possessed cataclysmic excitement.
Guy Johnston was replacing Julian Lloyd Webber at short notice, the latter having been forced to retire from playing the cello. Johnston (whose David Tecchler instrument is 300 years old this year) opened the Shostakovich rather too gently though his account was captivating. The ‘Cadenza’ third movement merged thoughtfulness and verve, and was quite moving. Simonov proved a terrific accompanist, and the Finale had a self-propulsion that made every note inevitable and exhilarating, Johnston and Orchestra battling for escape from what conductor Kyril Kondrashin described as “victory through struggle.”
The last time I heard the Moscow Phil and this conductor they also offered Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, and I was rather scathing of a contrived performance. This one was rather more exciting. Simonov led a determined account, expansive and with sweep, not entirely personal, but it sounded glorious. The conclusion to the first movement was viciously doom-laden, which gave the second movement’s calmness a heart-skipping contrast. The pizzicato scherzo was on the slow side, although the scoring shone with brilliance. The Symphony concluded triumphantly, and proved a great showcase for the Moscow Philharmonic, clearly enjoying its rapport with Simonov.
There were five encores! Firstly, a calming account of the ‘Alla tedesca’ second movement from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Polish’ Symphony (familiar to ballet-fans as the third section – ‘Diamonds’ – of George Balanchine’s Jewels). Then the Muscovites revelled in the humour of the ‘Polka’ from Shostakovich’s The Golden Age. An unsentimental and out-of-place rendition of ‘Nimrod’ from Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations followed. Then, glancing at his watch, Simonov decided that there was still time for Dvořák’s Tenth and Eighth Slavonic Dances: the former swooned as salon music, conductor having a ball; the latter very fast and executed with gusto.