Prom 19: Russian Night with Spanish Tinge

Two Tangos
Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.77 (Op.99)
Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27

Ilya Gringolts (violin)

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Vassily Sinaisky

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 3 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This was a solidly successful concert from a Manchester team unfazed by the acoustic problems of the big barn. The players have after all been giving accomplished performances of Russian music from the days of Sir Edward Downes. Their next chief, Gianandrea Noseda, is a Gergiev protege and they have enjoyed a particularly successful association with Vassily Sinaisky, with whom they recorded Rodion Shchedrin’s Second Symphony for Chandos.

Ever the chameleon, that composer has recently embraced elements of the New Simplicity. But his Two Tangos harked back to the playful irreverence of his famous ballet version of Carmen. The orchestra was on superlative form, but it was unclear what if anything was meant by these transmogrifications of Albéniz. The moonlit, string-based, delicately percussive, quasi-Ravelian texture was punctuated by brassier interventions and finally torpedoed by a vulgar raspberry. Sinaisky made it sound deft and spontaneous rather than cynical.

Many in the crowd had come to see Deutsche Grammophon’s latest signing, an artist barely out of his teens, here visibly nervous and decked out in a mid-length coat like something out of a Chagall painting. He has a substantial discography already behind him, not that you’d know it from some of the publicity. As it happens, Ilya Gringolts’s way with the Shostakovich proved rather different from the exhaustingly intense Vengerov interpretation that will have been familiar to many Prommers. This was a performance of gentler introspection, the not-quite-calming ’Nocturne’ setting a mood that the later movements never quite dispelled. We know from a recent interview that Gringolts himself eschews balder political glosses on this music – “Over the past decade, the music of Shostakovich has become kind of cliché. I mean, before the Wall fell, it was considered Party music. Now it’s viewed as the opposite. I think it’s Shostakovich’s own inner world that counts” – but there was a certain detachment about the results.

While the focus and resolve of his playing was never in doubt, some may regard it as having been under-projected for this hall. The great third movement ’Passacaglia’ flowed almost too easily, lacking the stoicism and gravitas of a David Oistrakh, and there was something unsatisfying about the cadenza’s sudden switch from a rather broad tempo to an impossibly rapid one. Like Itzhak Perlman in the Elgar concerto, Gringolts had the music on a stand (the violinist turned conductor features on Gringolts’s recording of the Shostakovich released 5 August – 471 515-2) and he shares his mentor’s amazing technical security and spot-on intonation. There was no Vengerov throb – which would have pleased our editor – and no inappropriately upbeat encore.

No encore after Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony either, though there might well have been. This work has gone from neglect to repertoire staple in a single generation, but it is still rare to hear an account as sensibly balanced as this one. Neither so Russian as to start tampering with the scoring, nor as emotionally weighty as the best Western accounts, Sinaisky proved right inside the idiom, taking a relatively unlanguid view of the ’Adagio’ to avoid the risk of torpor. It was a volatile yet somewhat avuncular reading that may have left a few depths unplumbed but satisfied a now sweltering audience.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast on Thursday, 8 August, at 2 o’clock

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