Moscow & St Petersburg (2)

The Fairy’s Kiss – Divertimento
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.55

Boris Berezovsky (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Alexander Lazarev

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

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

The conclusion of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s two-concert “Moscow & St Petersburg” series was a cause for celebration: all-too-rarely performed works in excellent performances and cannily programmed to ensure a full house and revitalise a Glazunov symphony.

Glazunov’s Fifth is probably his most successful symphony (although the Fourth runs it close), a gloriously tuneful work with a particularly memorable scherzo. Here it received a performance of outstanding conviction. From its earliest days the Philharmonia has played late-19th-century Russian repertoire, the bedrock of its success being smooth, well-balanced strings, sophisticated woodwinds and well-integrated brass. Even in the confines of the Queen Elizabeth Hall the sound was never uncomfortable. Lazarev has this music in his bones and believes in it passionately. One could imagine greater restraint and calculation – the scherzo was perhaps taken too headlong to allow for the cleanest articulation – but there have been few performances of a seldom-played work where a conductor can have infused an orchestra with such radiant conviction. The svelte singing strings and fine clarinet in the slow movement were especially memorable whilst the finale’s conclusion produced a positive eruption of pure adrenaline such as one rarely encounters.

The programme’s first half brought a welcome outing for Stravinsky’s Divertimento culled from his first non-Diaghilev ballet The Fairy’s Kiss. Based on themes by Tchaikovsky and a story by Hans Christian Andersen, the ballet tells of young man who has been kissed by the Ice Fairy as a child, which means that she has chosen him for herself. When he is about to marry another she takes him to her world of glaciers. Under Lazarev the score received a danceable performance with sensitive contributions from cello, clarinet and harp and a light touch in the faster movements.

After Stravinsky’s homage to Tchaikovsky came the real thing, and a battle royal ensued between soloist and orchestra. Boris Berezovsky can reach parts of this concerto with ease where other soloists struggle, but despite all the incidental excitements along the way this very facility led Berezovsky into mannerism. Frequently it felt as if the concerto was being treated as a vehicle for display – a point underlined by the tasteless repetition of the finale’s peroration as an encore. The most satisfactory part of this performance, the part that finally touched the heart, was the slow movement where purely musical values took precedence over bluster.

It is to be hoped that the Philharmonia will explore other lesser-known Russian repertoire such as the insidiously tuneful Kalinnikov First Symphony, Glazunov’s Fourth or Balakirev’s First (which the Philharmonia once recorded with Karajan).

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