Saturday 29th September 2012, 19:30
Royal Festival Hall, London
Rodion Shchedrin Concerto for Orchestra No. 2 (The Chimes)
Denisov Bells in the Fog
Rachmaninoff The Bells (Choral Symphony)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski, Conductor
Tatiana Monogarova, Soprano
Sergei Skorokhodov, Tenor
Vladimir Chernov, Baritone
London Philharmonic Choir
London Symphony Chorus
Whether they sound for birth, marriage, death or peace, bells have long been an integral part of Russian culture. It was this idea which connected the four pieces performed by Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra last night. With the partnership’s previous recordings of Russian works garnering critical acclaim, my hopes were high.
Although Rachmaninoff’s The Bells often resonates around concert halls, the other works on the programme were less familiar. The concert was a melange of influences, ranging from references to Russian folk song to newer Polish styles and placing them next to hints of Minimalism and Impressionism. All of the pieces demanded orchestral virtuosity: over the course of the 90 minutes, every player in the LPO was pushed to their limits. It was not just their technical security that made the concert so memorable, but the presence and intensity of the performers.
The mood of the concert was established from the first note of Rodion Shchedrin’s Concerto for Orchestra No. 2 (The Chimes). The muted palette and eerie hush which was used to great effect throughout the evening introduced the one-movement Concerto. The quasi-minimalistic backdrop was interrupted by various eruptions, not least the superbly gutsy brass counterpoint. Jurowski’s metronomic precision handled the wide scope encompassed by the work with élan, balancing timbre and texture to great atmospheric effect.
This spectacular concert-opener was followed by the more withdrawn Miaskovsky. Based upon a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, Miaskovsky’s music is imbued with a cinematic quality and carries reminiscences of Rachmaninoff. The LPO’s colouristic variety proved crucial in illuminating the gloomy mood, ranging from the gravelly depths of the lower strings and bassoons to icy violin notes. For me, this piece failed to ignite to the same sky-high level as the Shchedrin. Even taking the music’s meditative character into account, the players seemed hesitant and appeared to be holding back. The moments where the orchestra fully connected with Jurowski’s sweeping gestures were truly brilliant, and it was s a shame that the entire piece was not on this level.
Denisov’s short work returned the LPO to their blistering best. This piece combined subtle dissonance with string shimmerings to magical, quasi-Debussian effect. Elusive snatches of ideas quickly dissolved, underpinned by hypnotic pulsating rhythms. Although there were subtle intonation issues, the textual balance of the instruments was top-notch.
The final work on the programme saw the LPO capture the kaleidoscopic colours of Rachmaninoff’s subtle orchestration. The first movement captured the joyous buoyancy well, the delicacy of articulation compensating for the slightly pedestrian pace. Even in the Lento romance, Jurowski allowed the music to blossom without straying into the realm of the over-sentimental. His slight rubato maintained the sense of overall line while still allowing sensitivity to the material. The highlight of the performance was undoubtedly the Presto third movement, where khorovod folk influences were injected with urgency in the full-blooded rendition. After the creamy tones of Sue Bohling (the LPO’s cor anglais), the nightmarish Allegro finale certainly packed a punch. Even though Jurowski’s tempo for the Elysian coda was slower than many other recordings, the sense of contemplation which this lent seemed appropriate.
The massed forces of the London Philharmonic Choir and the London Symphony Chorus responded well to the orchestra in their careful declamation of Poe’s text. Their diction in the Russian translation was impressive, their shaping in the third movement proving to great effect.
Sergei Skorokhodov and Vladimir Chernov were well suited to the tone of the solo parts in the first and fourth movements respectively, but the Italianate tone of Tatiana Monogarova (soloist in the second movement) blended less well with the LPO: her voice seemed to lack the depth of sound which Rachmaninoff’s writing invited.
The LPO certainly proved that its reputation for performances of Russian music is deserved. Combining technical finesse with passionate explosions, Jurowski’s interpretation definitely made a strong case for this music. I look forward to hearing more, and by the response in Royal Festival Hall, so did the rest of the audience.