Philharmonia Orchestra/Lazarev Benjamin Schmid [Lieutenant Kijé … Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto … The Nutcracker]

Lieutenant Kijé – Suite
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
The Nutcracker, Op.71 [selections]

Benjamin Schmid (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Alexander Lazarev

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 12 December, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Alexander Lazarev. Photograph: tennantartists.comThis afternoon concert was something of a festive appetiser, successfully avoiding Yuletide overload with Prokofiev’s tangentially Christmas-related film-score for “Lieutenant Kijé” and some unusual selections from both acts of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker.

Of the films that Prokofiev scored, “Lieutenant Kijé” is the least-often encountered, certainly not as frequently as Prokofiev’s later collaborations with the grandfather of modern film technique, Sergei Eisenstein. As with his music for “Alexander Nevsky”, there’s a feeling of compromise in Prokofiev’s music for “Kijé”: not a compromise of quality, but rather a simplification of his idiom, perhaps intended to produce something that might survive the awful soundtrack recording processes of early Soviet cinema. Alexander Lazarev and the Philharmonia emphasised the clarity of Prokofiev’s suite, perhaps missing some of the tumbling energy of its more vigorous movements. The overlapping themes heard in the finale were all well delineated with ‘Troika well-paced, but the haunting double bass solo of ‘Romance’ was a little nervous and the off-stage trumpet melody which begins and concludes the suite had to fight with, among other distractions, the tuneless whistle of a hearing aid.

German violinist Benjamin Schmid joined the Philharmonia Orchestra for an oddly uncomfortable performance of Mendelssohn’s often-played E minor Violin Concerto. Schmid had the difficulties of the solo part fully in his grasp, yet he barely seemed to relax. Intonation and rhythmic attack were never a problem, but his tone throughout was tight and nasal with little warmth. Even in the first movement’s becalmed second theme, Schmid pressed sound from his instrument producing an inappropriately gritty timbre. The cadenza was erratically interpreted and he seemed similarly uptight in the song-like melody of the second movement, which was again squeezed out with much crunching of the bow. The brief reflective introduction to the third movement was a highlight; Schmid melting into the string ensemble for the answer to each of his questioning phrases. But come the sparkling finale itself, Schmid’s bow struggled to bounce off the strings, as though they were lathered in treacle. Rarely did Schmid suggest the wit and vim of the finale, instead reverting to the gritted tone which pervaded his performance.

Confusion reigned over which parts of The Nutcracker would be played; even the programme note couldn’t decide. In the event, Lazarev and the Philharmonia chose unusual extracts from both acts, with ‘Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy’ being the only interloper from the usual ubiquitous selection. It was a great relief to hear the wonderful conclusion to the first act, which contains the ballet-score’s best music. That other off-Suite highlight, the Pas de Deux’ found the Philharmonia’s cellos in richly expressive form, and throughout these selections the strings particularly played with echt-Russian meatiness generally absent in “Kijé”. The ‘Final Waltz and Apotheosis’ finished a wonderful alternative survey of a score so often recounted as a collection of overly familiar lollipops.

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