The Snow Maiden, Op.12 Introduction; Melodrama; Dance of the Tumblers
Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.77
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.100
Sergey Khachatryan (violin)
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: 29 July, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The BBC Philharmonic, possibly Britain’s most underrated orchestra, usually responds well to Vassily Sinaisky in core Russian repertoire. Having a Gergiev protégé, Gianandrea Noseda, in charge as overall Chief shouldn’t have done any harm either. Not that this was one of Nicholas Kenyon’s more audacious bits of programming. We seem to get Prokofiev’s Fifth every year now (and the more challenging 6th occasionally) while Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto has also become something of a staple. Maxim Vengerov, usually considered its finest modern exponent, has given it at the Proms. So too have Gidon Kremer and Christian Tetzlaff. And Ilya Gringolts featured in a not dissimilar Russian miscellany from tonight’s orchestra and conductor. While the advance publicity this time round wanted to portray Shostakovich as samizdat cryptographer with Prokofiev his Stalinist stooge, David Nice’s new programme note for the Fifth swung the other way, seeking to impute layers of meaning which may or not be there. The music will survive to tell its own story.
A hint of novelty was provided by three excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s incidental music for Ostrovsky’s “The Snow Maiden”. The score was composed in 1873, some years before Rimsky-Korsakov came up with his full-length opera on the subject, much to his colleague’s annoyance. Its folk-derivation and characterful orchestration made the otherwise routine ‘Dance of the Tumblers’ an obvious number on which to close but the ‘Introduction’, launching with dangerously exposed woodwind lines, slightly ill-tuned on the night, was a predictable misfire. By far the best was the strings-only ‘Melodrama’, for which Sinaisky obtained a rapt response from his players.
The real highlight was the appearance of young Sergey Khachatryan, young enough to eschew formal gear, not a bad move given the oppressive heat. Born in 1985 in Yerevan, Armenia, he recently wowed the judges at the prestigious Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition (Brussels), and, as early as December 2000, took First Prize at the International Jean Sibelius Competition (Helsinki), the youngest-ever winner in the history of the competition. On this concert’s evidence, he has grown into an artist of truly exceptional flair and insight. And the Shostakovich is his party piece. Finding a middle way between Ilya Gringolts’s unexceptionable mainstream approach and Vengerov’s particular, throbbing intensity, Khachatryan satisfied all the concerto’s demands as few have done since the great David Oistrakh himself. The finale was the most self-consciously extrovert, lighter in tone than his peers and with a dash to the finishing line perfectly calculated to win prizes and bring the house down. Elsewhere his rock-solid intonation and sweet tone rarely faltered – although the ‘Cadenza’ had a scratchy moment – and his trademark, hushed withdrawn manner was employed to excellent effect in the first and third movements and in the solo Bach (a movement from the C major Sonata) he offered as an encore. What disappointed was the contribution of the orchestra, not quite rhythmically steady at times and reluctant to follow the soloist’s spacious tempos in the slower music. If the great third movement ‘Passacaglia’ flowed wonderfully, this was thanks to Khachatryan’s ability to spin the longest line.
After this, the Prokofiev was bound to seem a mite anti-climactic. Sinaisky brings idiomatic understanding but no special gravitas to these big socialist realist works and the lack of inflation will have impressed some more than it did me. Scarcely designed to articulate a subtext real or imagined, the music fairly hurtled along in the style of some of the older Soviet performances, a conception at the opposite extreme from Karajan’s or Celibidache’s. The first movement was given no time to breathe, though the balletic scherzo worked extremely well. Here at least was the kind of point and momentum missing from Marin Alsop’s disappointing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ selection the previous night. Generally speaking, the strings displayed more character than the winds and brass.
The proceedings may have looked more appealing on BBC 4 than in the hall, with pink and turquoise dappling for the Tchaikovsky, an insistent-pink colour-wash for the Shostakovich, and lime and yellow for the Prokofiev where one might have reasonably expected vermilion! The audience coughed its way unfeelingly through the Shostakovich and there were a couple of mobile phones in the Prokofiev, but it was I suppose gratifying to see such a full house.