Ilya Murometz

Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
Symphony No.3 (Ilya Murometz)

Nelson Goerner (piano)

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Vassily Sinaisky

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 19 July, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The first of several visits to this year’s Proms by the BBC Philharmonic, here under Chief Guest Conductor, Vassily Sinaisky.

Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten, written in 1977 in the wake of Britten’s death the previous December, is scored for large string orchestra and tubular bells. It is no doubt a well-intentioned, deeply-felt, score in terms of direct inspiration, but the work’s interest – such as it possesses – is confined to almost exclusively textural, rather than emotionally involving, matters. None the less, it continues to fascinate as a sound-image, of suitably slow and lugubrious expression, and one cannot deny the originality of the piece. It received a highly adequate, indeed at times compelling, performance.

The Argentinean pianist Nelson Goerner joined the orchestra for Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. From the start, it was clear that this was going to be a performance somewhat out of the ordinary; in the first place, Goerner’s playing revealed a welcome combination of strength, sensitivity and virtuosity, in that one could hear his every note (not invariably the case in most performances of this work); secondly, the tempos chosen were at once wholly organic and germane to the musical argument, yet not at all so very much slower then we often encounter. The result was that this score was revealed anew as the imperishable and beautifully proportioned masterpiece it is, any very slight shortcomings in the orchestral accompaniment serving only to throw into greater relief the quality of Goerner’s playing.

The concert ended with the Proms premiere of Reinhold Glière’s mammoth Third Symphony, ‘Ilya Murometz’ – subtitled after a fabled Slav hero, who is supposed to have flourished between the 10th and 12th centuries. This four-movement work, composed in 1909-11 and first performed in 1912, calls for a very large orchestra (eight horns, etc), and lasts for about 80 minutes. This performance was probably predicated around a recording – perhaps for Chandos – and one’s surprise was that the orchestra certainly seemed to know very well a work that for the vast majority of the audience would have been a closed book.

We might expect Sinaisky to know and to love this score, for it is one which has never really been out of favour in Russia, and quite a few major conductors in the West have essayed, and, in some cases, recorded this Symphony – albeit mostly in cut versions. But Glière’s ‘Ilya Murometz’ is essentially a programmatic symphony, and if it is going to be done at all, it is better done complete.

With regard to the work itself, on the plus side is Glière’s absolute mastery of the large late-Romantic orchestra – in terms of orchestral sound there are no miscalculations here, and his innate sense of colour holds the attention virtually throughout. Where there are miscalculations, they lie principally in the lack of distinctive melodic invention, despite the occasional use – like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov – of ancient Russian chants. A work of this length certainly demands at least one or two memorable themes, and not merely (as we are reminded on more than several occasions during its length) suggestions of Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov and contemporaneous note-spinning such as inhabits Schoenberg’s “Gurrelieder” and Stravinsky’s The Firebird.

In order to bring this work off – and it certainly deserved to be heard at the Proms (probably the best possible orchestral series in which it would be given) – one needs a conductor who will take it by the scruff of the neck and not allow self-indulgence to underline that which is already italicised. On this occasion, we were fortunate to have in Vassily Sinaisky a conductor who not only clearly believes in this work but also was able to draw the most committed playing from the BBC Philharmonic.

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