Prom 45 – Romeo & Juliet

Mussorgsky orch. Rimsky-Korsakov
Khovanshchina – Prelude
Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.77
Romeo and Juliet – Ballet, Op.64 (excerpts)

Christian Tetzlaff (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 23 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

As Leonard Slatkin reached the podium to start the concert, the members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra stood up for him, demonstrating their respect for his musicianship. The concert itself showed how very much the players were engaged with his enthusiasm.

Slatkin’s conducting was a joy to watch – a true expression of the man. His body rolled in time to the music. His left hand made minimal, precise gestures and finger-jabs. He clearly delighted in working with responsive colleagues – in sheer mutuality of their music-making, putting me in mind of Boulez earning an orchestra’s respect and anticipating a no less than utterly engaged performance in return.

The prelude to Khovanshchina was aural delight. It evokes the stillness of dawn, the quietly spreading daylight of a new day – gentle, delicate and entrancing. A set piece, the music is still and timeless – a noble anticipator of the opening to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The writing is very simple. Probably Rimsky-Korsakov simplified Mussorgsky’s original, as usual. It was played very simply too – lingering in the mind like a soft caress. Don’t demean music that is simple. These hushed moments were the high spot of my evening.

The Shostakovich was an altogether extraordinary experience. I could see Christian Tetzlaff quite clearly: he had the orchestra behind him and his sheets of musical notation in front. Yet I had the impression that a thick plate glass window separated us. I could see him moving, sometimes quite vigorously. I could not hear him, though. Occasional sounds penetrated, faintly and distantly.

I certainly had no sense of a virtuoso soloist in sonic command of anything. Rather, I seemed to be hearing a karaoke concerto.

This disturbed me greatly – until the cadenza, when I caught hectic, thin, wooden, mechanical scrapings from Tetzlaff – and realised what a narrow escape I’d had! He uses a modern German instrument made by Peter Greiner – its tone is thin, judging by the ungracious sound of the cadenza. Tetzlaff struck me as fussy, dry and academic – professorial, more concerned with the ’difficulty’ of the work and getting the notes played correctly than with projection or interpretation. It was strange and frustrating to hear the BBCSO playing a compelling, meticulous accompaniment – to nothing.

We heard far more of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet than is usual in the concert hall or as a filler on CD.

The famous rabble-rousing sections (in Acts 1 and 2 particularly) made the blood run wild – as they should. These sections of the ballet are virtually indestructible. Yet, credit where it’s due, the BBCSO responded with grandiose panache. The trumpets had a little trouble, but the tuba was resoundingly reliable. The final sections – the death numbers – were most affecting, whether grand or hushed. At other times, however, where the music was quiet and scurrying and Prokofiev’s inspiration more prosaic, I was more conscious of listening to an English orchestra, not a Russian one. At times I seemed to hear Bax, Ireland or Butterworth – and remembered how Russian the Royal Philharmonic had sounded in Alexander Nevsky (Prom 31).

Slatkin should have time to work similar magic on the BBCSO!

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Wednesday 27 August at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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