Philharmonia Orchestra/Sokhiev [Polovtsian Dances & Tchaikovsky 5 … Sergey Khachatryan plays Shostakovich]

Prince Igor – Polovtsian Dances
Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.77
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64

Sergey Khachatryan (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Tugan Sokhiev

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 31 March, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Tugan Sokhiev. ©Patrice NinThe concert got off to a flying start with the Oriental potpourri drawn from Act Two of “Prince Igor, the only act Borodin himself completed. Familiar from incorporation into “Kismet”, ‘Polovtsian Dances’ is not frequently performed, so this was a welcome outing, especially when despatched with such panache. The Philharmonia Orchestra has always had a way with 19th-century Russian repertoire – think of Karajan’s early recording of Balakirev’s First Symphony – bringing to it sophisticated silky strings and perfectly poised but characterful winds, and so it was here under Tugan Sokhiev’s elegantly precise direction.

Sergey Khachatryan. Photograph: Marco BorggreveThis left us unprepared for the magnificent account of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto. From the protracted nocturnal gloom of the opening movement, the ferocious ‘Scherzo’ (ferociously despatched) through the deeply affecting ‘Passacaglia’ to the final ‘Burlesque’, it would be hard to imagine a more penetrating reading. Central to its success was the hyper-sensitive quality of the orchestral collaboration, spot-on throughout and helping the soloist sustain the musical argument and momentum even in the more intractable passages. Remarkable too was Sergey Khachatryan’s combination of introspection with technical control, and the cadenza leading into the manic finale reached fever pitch, the sprint to the work’s finishing line given with sheer physical abandon. Khachatryan’s encore – lugubriously protracted Bach – slightly mitigated one’s pleasure even if it showed that this music can withstand a multiplicity of treatments and still emerge as great.

The Tchaikovsky was not on the same level. Previously with the Philharmonia Sokhiev has given us a superb account of the Fourth Symphony which really got to grips with the work’s interpretative problems and shed fresh light on it. Unfortunately, for all its popularity, to make its full impact Tchaikovsky 5 requires iron control and restraint. Anything less – as happened here – and we are into the world of diminishing returns where the various re-appearances of the motto theme fail to register as seismic events, and as a consequence the work feels strangely monochromatic. After a perfectly poised opening with a fine clarinet solo from Barnaby Robson, the first movement flowed too easily leaving little elbow-room for the final accelerando, and the slow movement after carefully calibrated string chords at the opening then drew a less than magical response from the guest horn principal (Nicolas Fleury). The third-movement Waltz, despite a notably elegant bassoon solo from Robin O’Neill, was jollied along at a tempo which militated against clean string articulation. The finale certainly sped along vigorously but its apotheosis though rambunctious was hardly apocalyptic. Sokhiev invariably elicits committed well-balanced playing. On this occasion with flowing tempos throughout and dynamic levels consistently overstated by a couple of notches coupled with a reluctance to vary the intensity, the overall effect was breathless rather than majestic.

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