Prom 25: 7th August 2001 – Broken Promise

L’Apprenti sorcier
Violin Concerto in D
Pavane pour une infante defunte
Ravel, Mussorgsky orch.
Pictures at an Exhibition

Vadim Repin (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lawrence Foster

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 7 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

It was going to be “The Russians are coming” even after Evgeny Svetlanov cancelled – ’… but one didn’t make it’ – Repin, who promised much in Tchaikovsky, broke a string.

American Lawrence Foster, 60 this October, proved an inspired replacement; Pavane offered instead of Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake. Perhaps recalling Ravel’s dictum that it was the child who died, not the Pavane, Foster let it flow exquisitely; lightness of touch, hushed tones and pellucid textures epitomised Gallic sensibility.

Foster breathed new life into Pictures, which emerged fresh and spontaneous. This was a reading brimful of subtle touches and animated characterisation. ’Great Gate of Kiev’ might have been more burnished and majestic. One missed here the ’real’ bell, on loan from St Basil’s Cathedral maybe, which Svetlanov brought to the BBCSO in late ’99 for a memorable Royal Festival Hall performance; Foster’s less epic conception was consistent with his overall view.

With the BBCSO in responsive form – its brass and percussion not quite as reliable as characterful woodwinds and rich-toned strings – Foster’s sensitivity to colour, tonal shading and dynamics made engrossing listening. Foster’s seamless blend of musicianship and fantasy sculpted Ravel’s vivid orchestral palette to intriguing effect – the ’continuous’ flute/piccolo line and ’spooky’ blending of harps and tuba in the sinister middle of ’Baba Yaga’ for example. An urbane, deft and musically articulate ’Tuileries’ – children playing – lingers in the mind; so too Byron Fulcher’s splendid euphonium solo in ’Bydlo’ – a heavy-weathered ox-cart under lugubrious tow. ’The Old Castle’ sustained interest in Foster’s wistful handling, Martin Robertson’s saxophone catching the air plangently. William Houghton’s summoning trumpet solo thoughtfully anticipated the gallery.

Foster’s concern for articulacy and forward-planning was less rewarding in Dukas’s scherzo – atmospheric, witty and detailed initially; too controlled in the later stages for full dramatic narrative.

He provided an alert, sympathetic accompaniment for Repin. If Dukas was short on theatre, it fully emerged when one of Repin’s strings broke mid-first movement, which he repaired on-stage giving Foster an opportunity for a couple of off-the-cuff remarks. Resuming “from measure 127,” Repin continued his elegant, vital and shapely account, one with plenty of fire, attack and lyricism; an aristocratic poise and some ’gypsy’ shading added to the appeal, the occasional scratched and sullen note a mere bagatelle. Silky timbre and phrasing, starlight beaming from woodwind arabesques, conjured a night-sky out of the slow movement; the finale – ’traditional’ cuts rejected – was a Cossacks’ knees-up. For an encore, Repin, with orchestral pizzicati, wittily commented on ’The Carnival of Venice’.

One of my earliest and singular musical experiences was in 1972 – the premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Triumph of Time. Lawrence Foster conducted. He’s always been around since then; it was good to catch him in ’popular’ fare, his profile raised significantly in this heart-warming concert.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Wednesday, 15 August, at 2 o’clock

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