A Night on the Bare Mountain [Sorochintsy Fair version]
Boris Godunov – Coronation Scene; Boris’s Monologue; Boris’s Death Scene
Piano Concerto No.1 in D flat, Op.10
Prince Igor – Polovtsian Dances
Sir John Tomlinson (bass)
Louis Lortie (piano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 26 July, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
An interesting mix of Russian favourites together with a piece by the conductor.
The evening opened with the choral version of Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain, the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus on lusty form as the forces of evil enjoying their night-time rite suitably encouraged by the fulsome sounds of Sir John Tomlinson’s Chernobog (and tenor David Hoadley) and some very vibrant playing from the CBSO. Sadly, this version is rarely heard – not even in the version left incorporated as part of the opera “Sorochintsy Fair”, for it offers an interesting variation on the more familiar (Rimsky-Korsakov arranged) orchestral version.
Tomlinson was then the focus for three of the great moments from “Boris Godunov”, the Tsar at three stages in his political career – firstly with doubts as to his accession, then as the autocrat as his confidence is irretrievably shattered by Shuisky’s insinuations about his involvement in the murder of the tsarevich, and finally as the dying ruler. Tomlinson, with his long experience in the role, brought these moments vividly to life even within the vast spaces of the Royal Albert Hall.
His voice, although no longer quite the focussed instrument it once was, still has enormous power, projection and character and there are few basses around who can create such a theatrical atmosphere in such a short time, and have an audience closely following every nuance of the text. He had good, if slightly untidy support from the Chorus in the ‘Coronation Scene’, but the sense of ‘crowd’ was palpable.
Thomas Adès set somewhat flaccid tempo, which did not quite evince the spectacle and excitement that the passage needs. It felt slightly muted – and while that might be appropriate for the feelings of Boris himself you need the exhilarating counter of the crowd to Boris’s more reflective thoughts. The percussion section made a pretty good clamour with the various bells and it was good to have the important contribution of the piano in the early moments of the scene brought to the fore. The two ‘Monologues’ were more successful, however, but one was so intent on listening to Tomlinson that the sterling accompaniment remained in the background.
After the first interval we had Adès conducting his own work, Tevot, written for Berliner Philharmoniker and Simon Rattle, eminently approachable music and very satisfying. The muted and glassy transparent start of the work gradually builds the tension to moments where a calming and choral-like theme enters to bring a short-lived pacifying moment. There follow passages with Messiaen-like percussive effects to enliven a spirited lilting theme that is continually developed into a sort of dance of some complexity. It was a shame that the resolution and solace-providing final moments were marred by too-early applause.
After a second interval (was this really necessary?), there was a scintillating account of Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto given by Louis Lortie; one that managed the tricky balance between bringing out the work’s late-Romantic aspects and their more-Modernist rhythmic development. The middle section was nicely reflective – some very beautiful clarinet playing at the start – and the finale excitingly moderated. Adès and the CBSO proved alert and collaborative accompanists.
The concert closed with an exuberant performance of the ‘Polovtsian Dances’ from Act Two of “Prince Igor”, preceded by the short passage of dances from the start of the same act with soprano Anna Dennis giving a charming account of the song of the Polovtsian girl. In the middle of the Dances proper bass Graham Titus sang Khan Konchak’s brief interjection (offering the captive Igor his pick of the dancing girls). The Chorus again made much of the acclamatory passages and the Dances certainly had brio if little dynamic variety.