Romeo & Juliet

War and Peace – Overture
Suite on Verses by Michelangelo Buonarroti, Op.145a
Romeo and Juliet, Op.64 [excerpts]

Ildar Abdrazakov (bass)

BBC Philharmonic
Gianandrea Noseda

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 20 July, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Since Prokofiev never left a final, definitive performing version of his opera “War and Peace”, there is some uncertainty as to whether, ultimately, this overture was to be included. In any event, it dates from the composer’s first thoughts (1941-2) regarding his setting of Tolstoy’s great novel and was here given a performance of commitment and conviction. The refulgent brass were commanding but not overbearing, whilst the strings responded with expressive, legato playing. In fact the BBC Philharmonic’s performance throughout was rather more impressive than that of its counterpart in the BBC Symphony Orchestra heard on the First Night of this year’s Proms.

The Suite on Verses by Michelangelo Buonarroti is one of Shostakovich’s very last works. Both the original (for piano) and orchestrated versions were first performed in 1975 – the year of the composer’s death – the latter being given posthumously.

Like most of Shostakovich’s ‘late’ works, it inhabits a particularly dark world, and with its textual references to the fragility of life and aspects of an artist’s insecure place within it, it is not too difficult to perceive a quasi-autobiographical element. Musically speaking, it is perhaps closest in spirit to the Fourteenth Symphony.

Identified as both a bass and a baritone in different parts of theprogramme, Ildar Abdrazakov has a fine voice which I would place definitely in the former category; a worthy successor indeed to other Russian basses who have essayed Shostakovich’s music.

Together with Noseda, Abdrazakov gave an authoritative performance of these largely sullen songs. There is a sense of weariness in the music, which is only relieved briefly and occasionally, and then one senses Shostakovich’s ironic streak at work, such as in the second setting (of eleven); Michelangelo’s Sonnet No.20 (‘Morning’). In the defiance of No.5 (‘Anger’) and bitterness of No.8 (‘Creativity’), the orchestra relished the detail of the composer’s scoring, with particularly incisive percussion and strong brass who, once again, didn’t stray into stridency.

Shostakovich deploys different orchestral grouping for hisaccompaniments, but underpinning all are the yearning strings whose dynamics and nuances were executed in an exemplary fashion. Just occasionally I would have preferred more variety of inflection in the vocal line, but this would be carping at what was a mostly moving interpretation, very well realised. The same performers have recorded this music for Chandos.

Sadly, appreciation of this first half of the concert was marred by some extremely inconsiderate behaviour by occupants of one of the boxes behind where I was seated, along with other reviewers. Muttering during the music, a mobile phone ringing and an exit from the box with the door being banged were just some of the distractions. Given the quantities of alcohol that were being consumed during the concert, one might ascribe this thoughtlessness to inebriation.

I was able to move a little way away for the second half, though one was still conscious of the potential for further distraction.

I’m not quite sure what the reasoning behind programming selections from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” was, given that we had excerpts at last year’s Proms (and the year before…) and that selections feature quite regularly in London concerts throughout the year.

It is generally the case that conductors ‘pick and choose’ their own sequences, and Gianandrea Noseda was no exception. It would be interesting, for a change, to hear Prokofiev’s own thoughts in the form of one or more of the three Suites he himself devised from his complete score – two of these being compiled before the ballet was staged.

This was a colourful and quite exciting performance, though it felt definitely like a concert work rather than one for the stage. One or two of the speeds (such as the famous ‘Dance of the Knights’ and ‘Death of Tybalt’) were much too fast for normal choreographic purposes, though there was plenty of dance-like movement on the podium. Elsewhere, some expressive and characterful playing could be savoured; if one singles out the saxophone, bass clarinet and solo strings, this is not to deny the excellence of contributions from other players and sections.

This concert revealed the BBC Philharmonic in consistently fine form and its Principal Conductor certainly elicits a sure and ready response from his players.

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