St John’s Night on a Bare Mountain [original version]
Boris Godunov [original version; selections: Coronation Scene; Boris’s monologue (‘Clock’ scene from Act II); Death of Boris
Symphony No.1 in G minor, Op.13 (Winter Daydreams)
Sergei Leiferkus (baritone)
Chorus of the Mikhailovsky Theatre [recorded in St Petersburg as part of the OAE performances in January 2015]
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 15 January, 2015
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Although historically informed ensembles such as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment frequently make incursions into the 19th-century with performances of Beethoven and Schubert, such a lurch as this programme into the latter end of that period was bound to raise a few eyebrows. But there was at least the advantage of consistency in this concert, with a prevailing Russian theme (in terms of repertoire and performers) and even also the subject of winter, suggested in Mussorgsky’s orchestral fantasy and evoked in the Tchaikovsky Symphony. Also, of all the conductors of major symphony orchestras today, it struck me that Vladimir Jurowski is one of the best suited to lead the OAE here, given his tendency towards brisk and fluid interpretations which are well adapted to what we have come to think of as an ‘authentic’ approach to performances.
Authenticity also extended to the choice of textual variants of the first two works. Mussorgsky’s original version of St John’s Night on a Bare Mountain (1867) is rather more animated and bright than the more solemn, demonic character of the much better known revision by Rimsky-Korsakov. Appropriately Mussorgsky’s more-dangerous ride was met with a blustery account by the OAE here, particularly in the opening section, with the various sections of the orchestra sweeping in unexpectedly one after the other, as though even they were taken by surprise with the different score and its rhythms. However, the ensemble’s luminous sonorities were well suited to this more nimble version, which ends with an almost comic, throwaway gesture.
The selection of scenes from the same composer’s Boris Godunov was also taken from the original score (1869). Textural clarity was again a boon, such as the passage in Boris’s final monologue where he desperately calls down God’s blessing upon his children. But on the whole the orchestra lacked the darker hues required for one of the quintessential Russian operas. Unfortunately Jurowski was not adept, either, at sustaining dramatic momentum, tending to reduce the chosen sequences to a succession of episodes rather than shaping them into something unified. The peals of the bells and contributions of the Chorus of the Mikhailovsky Theatre by recordings projected through loudspeakers hardly aided the sense of dramatic presence!
There were no shortcomings in Sergei Leiferkus’s contributions, combining nobility of tone and inconsolable, existential anguish, which made all the greater impact by the way that his acting was mostly channelled through musical means rather than physical gestures. There was also a poignant lyricism in evidence.
Given the relatively limited expressive parameters of the OAE’s period-performance remit (albeit playing on modern copies) there was considerable vitality and contrast in the account of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Winter Daydreams’ Symphony (1866). Jurowski permitted a certain amount of vibrato to be used tellingly in passages such as the second subject of the first movement to point up these impassioned moments; and the baleful woodwinds at the opening of the finale recalled the similar passages in the roughly contemporary Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture.
Problematically, though, Jurowski showed an imperfect sense of the Symphony’s broader dramatic structure so that, although there was a thrilling sense of cohesion and unanimity in the unison climactic passages throughout the orchestra (a Tchaikovskian fingerprint) and a tonal warmth in the cellos’ long-breathed melody embedded among wispy strings in the slow movement, the conductor had not steered a purposeful musical discourse up to these heightened sections. As a result the intervening passages of less dramatic power seemed bland and monochrome – even the Handelian fugal sequences of the finale were a scurrying, unclear bustle to which Jurowski seemed indifferent, and which this orchestra ought to have been able to execute better. Still, a due sense of weight was no problem for the OAE and so the Symphony ended on a properly ecstatic note.