Westminster Philharmonic Russian Night

Mussorgsky arr. Rimsky-Korsakov
Night on a Bare Mountain
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23
Isle of the Dead, Op.29
Prince Igor – Polovtsian Dances

Philip Smith (piano)

Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra
Jonathan Butcher

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 9 July, 2005
Venue: St John's, Waterloo, London

St John’s Church in Waterloo was commissioned in 1818. It is built in the Greek Revival style, with a portico, six Doric-style columns and a tower/spire later but reminiscent of Hawksmoor. The interior is plain bordering on the humdrum, the ceiling panels high in the distance promise colour and adventure.

The church is spacious and intimate – very much suited to theoccasion. There is no platform. Hence, the orchestra plays on the same level as the audience. At times, this is a disadvantage. Unbalanced orchestral sound; for example horn-sounds swallowing violins however vigorously played.

The orchestra comprises highly gifted amateurs, drawn from all over London. Jonathan Butcher is entering his third decade of association with the WPO.

Night on a Bare Mountain was often unashamedly loud and raucous. The brass established a menacing command. The piece was exciting and vigorous, its rhythmic thrust derived from punctiliously stressing the first beat in the bar. There were occasions, however, where opportunities for additional rhythmic emphasis were missed, rendering some of the menace more repetitive than necessary. Softer sections were a delight, especially once the flautist had found a characteristic strong, open, melodic tone.

I enjoyed Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto enormously. Assuredly, and with a swinging vitality, Philip Smith and Jonathan Butcher set a tempo to suit an agreed interpretation. The music went at a fair pace; it certainly did not drag. Even so, the romantic mode was present – ardent, lilting, forward-moving, wistful and, at times, slightly drooping. All this was just right. The performance was impassioned but cool. Emotions were heartfelt and the idiom incorporated classical poise; a success both magnificent and thrilling. For once the long first movement did not overstay its welcome. The slow movement was greatly tender and the finale cracked a swaggering, frenzied whip. This performance accorded Tchaikovsky respect – not always the case.

Isle of the Dead made its mark, too. It is dark, sombre andatmospheric. The Westminster Philharmonic was successful inrealising its aims – to declare that this music is impressive and worthwhile. Gloom is inherent in the music and during the piece’s 20-minute duration relief comes in two respects. There is a more joyful, middle section and there are also moments of lighter, sparer orchestration, highlighting the woodwinds. Flutes, oboes and clarinets were superb in these moments. For the horns and the trombones, the music must be very taxing; there were one or two slips. Furthermore, the music, several times, requires sustained, slow-moving resonance from the brass – difficult to sustain and difficult to gauge.

The Polovtsian Dances sounded absolutely brilliant. The orchestration sparkled, the playing sang and clanged and squealed with exuberant virtuosity. Of course, the “Kismet” melodies remain in Borodin’s music. Part of the whole, they received no crude limelight. I liked that.

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