Ruslan and Ludmilla – Overture
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23
Freddy Kempf (piano)
Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano)
Robert Murray (tenor)
Matthew Hargreaves (bass-baritone)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers
Reviewed: 3 February, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
Sandwiched between a trip to Egypt and a few days in Spain, all with its Principal Guest Conductor Leonard Slatkin at the helm, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra ‘touched base’ at Cadogan Hall with an all-Russian programme featuring three composers with very different musical styles.
Although not the first Russian to write opera, Glinka laid the foundations inherited and developed by Tchaikovsky and others. “A Life for the Tsar” was a notable success even before “Ruslan and Ludmilla”, which was performed some 300 times in St Petersburg within forty years of its premiere in 1842. The story, after Pushkin, is a typically Russian affair and full of magic – with talking heads and a dwarf who gains his powers from his enormously long beard. The overture offered a musical ride of its own and it found Slatkin in relaxed mood with forceful brass and dancing strings – all very Russian, very lyrical.
Along with Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto, Tchaikovsky’s First is the most well-known and recorded of all although its original dedicatee, Nikolai Rubinstein, described it as “banal, clumsy and incompetently written” (more likely a reflection of Tchaikovsky’s lack of keyboard ability) and “containing only a few pages of worthwhile material.” Tchaikovsky changed the dedication to his new friend Hans von Bülow but did not alter a single note. Later, Rubinstein would become one the concerto’s chief proponents.
Freddy Kempf’s youthful reading was highly satisfying and, with Slatkin’s firm hand at the tiller, found its way to (almost) every note. The opening was exactly expansive, perfectly phrased, if initially seeming too drawn out if making perfect musical sense in the context of what followed. The first movement cadenza maintained a remarkable degree of tension and there was real delicacy too in the second, the Prestissimo middle section being particularly delightful. Fine solos, too, from bassoonist Daniel Jemison and cellist Tim Gill. The finale was appropriately electrifying.
Tchaikovsky’s music provided the basis of Stravinsky’s ballet The Fairy’s Kiss, but for Pulcinella (here receiving a rare complete outing) he looks much further back to the music of the Neapolitan master Pergolesi and to his contemporaries. Given leading roles for all the orchestral principals, this is a good piece with which to show off the best qualities of any orchestra; with its reduced forces of 33 musicians and it worked especially well in Cadogan Hall’s acoustic.
Throughout tempos were well-chosen and with minimal fuss Slatkin elicited some really splendid playing. Of the three vocal soloists Robert Murray was superbly soothing in his opening ‘Serenata’, sustaining a B flat to an exquisite pianissimo close, and there were no distracting operatic histrionics from any of the trio who blended well with the orchestra. In the quicker music there was a brilliance to put a spring on one’s step; but this was also Stravinsky with a heart and – where appropriate as in the hilarious ‘Vivo’ with its duet for trombone and double bass – a remarkable wit.