Ruslan and Ludmilla – Overture
Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.82
Symphony No.2 in C minor, Op.17 (Little Russian) [Revised Version]
Julia Fischer (violin)
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 2 November, 2014
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Three aspects of 19th-century Russian nationalism in one programme, this concert also marked fifty years since the inaugural concert of the New Philharmonia Orchestra in 1964 after Walter Legge’s failed attempt to disband the Philharmonia (which reverted to its original name in 1977).
Glinka is generally seen as the father of the Russian nationalist school of composers. The Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla got the afternoon off to a flying if not the tidiest start. Soon however there were good things to enjoy, the polish of the violas and cellos in their expansive tune and the restraint with which Jakub Hrůša treated the central section and a degree of cunning in the way he left himself enough room to pile on the pressure in the coda.
The highlight was Julia Fischer and the Orchestra’s extraordinary account of Glazunov’s Violin Concerto. His music is deeply unfashionable these days but at its best – and this work definitely falls into that category. It is wonderfully crafted and mines a vein of melancholy which is peculiarly Russian and deserves many more outings. However, in the wrong hands its difficulties cruelly expose technical strain. Even the prodigiously secure Julia Fischer looked a little tense until she had the second-movement cadenza out the way, not that she needed to, for this was glorious playing, and she also teased out much light and shade. There was dignity too as well as bravura, and the finale had an irresistible lilt; the Orchestra deserved equal credit. Rightly, Fischer recognised this when she passed her bouquet to the lady harpist, surely a compliment to the Philharmonia as a whole.
There was a welcome and unusual encore, the finale of Hindemith’s (solo) Sonata in G minor, Opus 11/6. “Don’t worry, it’s a good piece”, said Fischer when she announced it, and it is.
Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony was largely composed at Kamenka in the Ukraine and makes use of Ukainian folk-melodies; in pre-revolutionary days the Ukraine was known as ‘Malorossiya’ (Little Russia). The Philharmonia has real pedigree in this music, recording it with Giulini, Abbado and Muti. Hrůša’s account was in the same class. Following Katy Woolley’s wonderfully voiced horn solo, we had an immaculately paced first movement culminating in the one fff before melting back into silence. The Andantino marziale was a tad slower than it might have been but Hrůša used the leisurely tempo perfectly when it came to pacing the climax; above all the music had the requisite balletic delicacy. The scherzo flew, Keith Bragg’s piccolo much to the fore, and its scampering trio (marked at the same tempo) maintained the momentum. The finale, after the initial opening flourish, can be a problem – what do you do with a folksong after you have played it once? You play it faster and louder – but given with such élan and lightness of touch it never outstayed its welcome.