Philharmonia Orchestra/Jakub Hrůša – Scriabin’s Reverie, Alexander Nevsky – Frank Peter Zimmermann plays Shostakovich

Réverie, Op.24
Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.77
Alexander Nevsky – Cantata, Op.78 [sung in Russian with English surtitles]

Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)

Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano)

Philharmonia Voices

Philharmonia Orchestra
Jakub Hrůša

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 2 May, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Jakub Hrůša. Photograph: Prague PhilharmoniaJakub Hrůša has done some memorable work in London – with the Philharmonia, Czech Philharmonic and BBC Symphony orchestras – and he was a notable music director of Glyndebourne Tour (some review-links below). He continued to impress during his latest appearance with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Scriabin’s Réverie (1898) is a potent miniature with an expressive burden, here taken mostly by Mark van de Wiel’s clarinet, claustrophobic music that is passionately released at the climax; much happened during these four minutes.

The concert-hall Cantata that Prokofiev made from his score for Eisenstein’s historical film Alexander Nevsky (which screened late in 1938) was first heard in May 1939 and has been popular ever since. The Philharmonia Voices at just 54 members looked rather lightweight – a couple of sentries rather than a battalion – but the excellence of the singing and exemplary blend and balance within the group and with the orchestra tended to satisfy the ear if not the eye; just occasionally more choral weight was needed. The performance as a whole was excitingly graphic and in rampant Technicolor (Eisenstein’s film is black and white) and also moving, not least when Anna Stéphany (replacing Ekaterina Semenchuk) entered as an emotional and sensitive griever searching for her two lovers amongst the dead soldiers. Those that fell did so in the preceding ‘The Battle on the Ice’; maybe a little too considered here so as to rob the music of its ultimate conflict. It seemed more a carnival, although the composer cannot be excused, for this music, however likeable, doesn’t always suggest war and bloodshed. Hrůša was pristine in his conducting, which certainly benefitted numerous subtleties, such as the off-stage oboe in the opening movement, but elsewhere tended to underplay oppression and insurgence if not Alexander’s final triumph which was broadly essayed, the troupe of choristers needing all their lung power (and a bit more) and with the Philharmonia playing with bubbling vitality.

However, the Cantata was played in the shadow of Evgeny Svetlanov’s January 1988 account with this Orchestra, at this address, that refuses to leave the consciousness. He brought a sense of panoramic theatre to this score that few can match, and which fortunately remains more than a memory now that it is released on an ICA compact disc (review-link below). Although Hrůša and his stellar combatants did the music proud in numerous ways, when the conductor seemingly cut the final chord too short, even if he didn’t, in the light of Svetlanov’s tremendously intense, wickedly long-held crescendo at this point, what we got seemed watered-down; an example of a compelling exaggeration becoming the enemy of perfect respectability.

Frank Peter Zimmermann. Photograph: Franz HammShostakovich’s music, alongside that of Mahler’s, is played too often. Fact! And some scores of both composers one now wishes further due not to the music itself but to concert-hall repetition. One such sufferer is Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No.1, completed in 1948 for David Oistrakh, and suppressed until 1955, post-Stalin. If it now turns up too often, here was a revelatory performance that cleansed the palate. If one might quibble with the odd (obviously-intended) detail, there was no doubt that Frank Peter Zimmermann was the complete master of this work, technically impeccable, and musically discriminating. It’s all too easy to play most Shostakovich scores as being full of ciphers, or to invent a programme and suggest a narrative, usually repressive. With a vibrant partnership of similar mind from Hrůša and the Philharmonia, Zimmermann presented a focused and objective account that eloquently expressed the opening ‘Nocturne’ (ruinously intruded upon by some insensitive clappers at its close) and then riposted with a coruscating ‘Scherzo’ (also clapped). In a reading that flowed without mawkishness, the ‘Passacaglia’ was both unsentimental yet deeply moving, and then the long cadenza was stunningly timed and given with Bachian purity, speeding into the ‘Finale’ that suggested an unrestrained Cossack dance. At no point was this rendition a lecture on what Shostakovich ‘might have meant’; we can each wrestle with that when given musical facts, as here. If Zimmermann was at all tempted to play an encore, he rightly resisted doing so.

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