In the South … Scheherazade

In the South (Alassio) – Concert Overture, Op.50
Vaughan Williams
Concerto in C for Piano and Orchestra
Rimsky-KorsakovScheherazade – Symphonic Suite, Op.35

Ashley Wass (piano)

BBC Philharmonic
Vassily Sinaisky

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 12 August, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Vassily SinaiskyVassily Sinaisky joined the BBC Philharmonic for a concert that seemed, at best, under-rehearsed. Sinaisky is currently the orchestra’s Chief Guest Conductor so unfamiliarity with the English music is less forgivable than were there no connection at all.

Elgar’s Concert Overture was the product of a winter break in Italy where he and his wife had gone to escape the worst of the British weather. In early January 1904 the composer’s imagination was caught; this resulted in the piece being written and orchestrated at lightning speed in time for its first performance in March. Sadly the weather didn’t clear for this Prom in a performance marred by sloppy entries (probably caused by the wayward lack of a downbeat) and exaggerated rubato that pulled the piece apart.

This was an essentially popular concert – Elgar and Rimsky-Korsakov as the bread for a sandwich that included rare Vaughan Williams as the filling, not one of his glorious earlier works (such as Tallis Fantasia or The Lark Ascending) but the something from the grittier world of the 1930s that also spawned the violent and tense Fourth Symphony. Vaughan Williams’s Piano Concerto is seldom heard in a concert (although the work has been recorded – including twice by Howard Shelley, with Vernon Handley and Bryden Thomson, and also by Piers Lane, with Handley – and it exists in a revision for Two Pianos and Orchestra. There is much for the pianist to play but not much opportunity to shine – “of the 301 bars making up the first two movements, only 20 are for piano alone”. The piano is silent only for 37 bars in the first two movements.

Ashley WassThe concerto’s three movements run without a break and owe something to the Baroque Concerto grosso. Ashley Wass, playing the piece for the first time, made much of the polyphonic interplay between piano and orchestra, most notably in the beautiful ending of the second movement; but unfortunately the short cadenza at the end of the first coincided with a ferocious storm outside that made the passage almost inaudible. The ‘German Waltz’ in the finale was again let down by Sinaisky who seemed, at one point, to be lost!

After the interval, during which Sinaisky possibly gave himself a stern talking to, it was like a different group of musicians had replaced the insecure and hesitant performers of earlier. Sinaisky appeared happier with the music of his compatriot, Rimsky-Korsakov. Where the first half lacked variegation and enthusiasm, Scheherazade brimmed with keenly observed dynamic contrast and jocular effervescence. Yuri Torchinsky initially appeared uncomfortable with the violin solos, which sounded hurried, but things soon settled down. The BBC Philharmonic now espoused a well-drilled group of musicians in complete command and gave a glittering and fresh performance of Rimsky’s evergreen 1001-Nights suite.

This Prom is repeated on BBC Radio 3 on 19 August at 2 p.m.; I suggest you tune in about an hour later!

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