Symphony No.1 in D, Op.25 (Classical)
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
Scheherazade – Symphonic Suite, Op.35
Steven Isserlis (cello)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Alan Sanders
Reviewed: 22 April, 2014
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
How should a conductor approach Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony? Some see it as a frothy pastiche, an exercise in pert virtuosity. But the composer used Haydn as his model, and the older man’s symphonies were serious in intent, despite their elements of high-spirited humour. And so it was refreshing to hear Kirill Karabits bring more sense of gravitas to the score than we often hear. His tempos throughout were generally moderate; nothing was dashed off inconsequentially. Thus the opening Allegro really did sound like a classical symphony’s first movement, nicely pointed but substantial in content. The Larghetto was beautifully moulded, even if the first violins didn’t always quite conquer the extreme demands made of them, and the ‘Gavotte’ was played simply and elegantly, without any elements of self-conscious parody. The finale was brisk and lightly inflected, but Karabits took good care to emphasise the structure of the movement, so that it and the work made a deeper impression than is often the case.
From the very beginning of the work, Steven Isserlis made it clear that his reading of Elgar’s Cello Concerto would be dignified and unsentimental. No emotional wallowing was to be heard, only a very pure, very beautiful and deeply felt form of expression. This was enhanced by Isserlis’s lovely tone quality, even if it was not large in terms of volume. Did all the elements of his artistry reach those seated at the back of the Hall, I wonder? For those of us closer to the action there was a great deal to savour in the cellist’s aristocratic delivery of the first movement’s brooding sentiments, his clear definition of the second’s contrasting moods and an Adagio whose long lines were elegantly and affectingly drawn. The finale was played in a straightforward, quite thrusting manner, with the composer’s feelings of defiance in the face of doubt brought out strongly. As an encore, Isserlis played Pablo Casals’s Song of the Birds.
The sense of balance that Karabits had brought to Prokofiev’s was also apparent in his conducting of Scheherazade. His was not a flashy reading, but one in which he effectively brought out the subtleties of Rimsky-Korsakov’s imaginative invention and superlative scoring. The RPO’s leader, Clio Gould, proved to be an accomplished violin soloist, and it was noticeable that the conductor gave the wind soloists plenty of room to breathe: he was rewarded with playing of high artistry and beautiful sound. In this respect, if there had been more personnel in the string sections they would no doubt have matched the quality of their wind-playing colleagues, but a warm string sound was only really heard when first and second violins were playing together. When it was needed, especially in the exciting finale, Karabits obtained an incisive, disciplined response, and overall this was a very satisfying account of Rimsky’s masterpiece.