Philharmonia Orchestra/Valčuha – Khovanshchina & Pictures at an Exhibition – Sergey Khachatryan plays Tchaikovsky

Mussorgsky, orch. Shostakovich
Khovanshchina – Prelude
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Mussorgsky, orch. Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition

Sergey Khachatryan (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Juraj Valčuha

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 19 April, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition is almost a concerto for orchestra in the opportunities it provides, not just for individual players to shine but also for an orchestra to show its collective mettle. It has long been something of a party piece for the Philharmonia Orchestra – with Kletzki, Muti and Giulini, but also famously with Karajan whose 1950s’ recording with the Orchestra set a standard which few have equalled. Skilfully constructed overall, Pictures’ tolling culmination with ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ scarcely ever fails to elicit an ovation and this performance was no exception; however, both here and in Shostakovich’s scoring of the Prelude (‘Dawn over the Moskva River’) to Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, all-too-frequently one found one’s thoughts harking back to past glories.

Sergey Khachatryan. Photograph: Marco BorggreveFortunately the evening was more than redeemed by a quite unusually affectionate and characterful performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto from Sergey Khachatryan, the Armenian violinist first heard as a very young man in a Royal Festival Hall concert conducted by Itzhak Perlman. Although at that time he did not possess the most ingratiating of sounds, it was clear that he was a violinist of real potential; now with the benefit of the ‘Ysaÿe’ Guarneri (on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation), he produces the warmest of sounds, even in a remarkably secure account of the first-movement cadenza.

Seldom has one heard quite so leisurely or laid-back an account of the first two movements, sounding for all the World as if the violinist were recollecting the concerto as though in a dream; the ‘Canzonetta’ – aided by some superb woodwind contributions – was memorably inward and affecting. By contrast the finale positively exploded out of the traps and although there were moments when it was hammed up, there were also some deliciously tender exchanges between soloist and the woodwinds. Juraj Valčuha proved an effective if occasionally plodding accompanist although there was clear evidence of rapport between soloist and conductor. The encore, appropriately enough – given Khachatryan’s instrument – was Ysaÿe’s obsessive take on Bach, despatched with finesse and a twinkle in the eye.

There followed quite the dullest of visits to Mussorgsky’s picture gallery. Ushered in by an uncharacteristically raucous trumpet, rather than framing the individual paintings and showing them off to best advantage, the ‘Promenades’ were perfunctory throughout. The whole point of Pictures at an Exhibition is to distil the essential character of each of Hartmann’s now-forgotten paintings and sketches, fine-tuning the orchestral response so that each one snaps into the sharpest possible focus. Here everything was viewed through a fine mist, the orchestration’s vivid primary colours frequently muted.

‘The Old Castle’ and ‘Bydlo’ were both dragged and treated to a quasi-operatic expressivity at odds with Mussorgsky’s abrupt style. ‘Les Tuileries’, a voluble scherzo, lacked the skipping lightness of children at play, whilst the headlong tempo adopted for ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’ caused problems of ensemble. ‘The chattering housewives of ‘The Market Place at Limoges’ were a pretty tame lot (despite being persistently too loud). Ironically, the squawking trumpet sounded totally in place as Schmuyle, the vicious portrait of the poor whining Jew in ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle’. At least there was a degree of genuine venom in ‘The Hut of Baba-Yaga’ with a real depth of string sound but unfortunately any momentum was then vitiated by a flaccid account of ‘Great Gate’ which pulled its punches too soon. There were fine individual contributions: Huw Wiggin’s saxophone solo in ‘The Old Castle’ and flautist Jonathan Snowden throughout. But this was the Philharmonia on workaday form rather than the great orchestra it can be.

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