November 2017; Russian Romantics

The Canterbury Orchestra’s programme ‘Russian Romantics’ was a a bold and colourful execution of some challenging repertoire for an amateur ensemble. The orchestra was joined by Christopher Weston at the piano for Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini by Rachmaninov (1934) and an interesting dialogue between the original score and the arranged segments for orchestra by Tushmalov of Pictures at an Exhibition (1874)

The venue was atmospheric and staged beautifully, allowing the piano to speak fully and the orchestra to penetrate the acoustic. Glinka’s Overture to his opera on Pushkin’s poem, Russlan and Ludmilla (1837-42) opened the concert and the orchestra settled into the performance with the cantabile cello melody really shining through. This was followed by a well executed violin melody, though the sudden shift to the parallel minor key could have been articulated differently to demonstrate its significance; hinting at the abduction plot of the opera. Some of the fast scalic passages were not sufficiently articulated, resulting in a lack of clarity and imprecision in the staccato. The dialogue between the clarinet and oboe brought everything back together and the repetition of the cello melody in the higher register was well done. The bold ending to this piece did set the bar for the rest of the concert, building great anticipation for the Rachmaninoff. 

Christopher then took his place at the piano with great poise and after the orchestra’s well-communicated outline of the harmony to Paganini’s Caprice No. 24, we knew that we were in for a treat. A performance of great humour, virtuosity and excellent communication between the conductor and the soloist. The balance was very well coordinated, quite clearly an inspired rendition of this masterpiece on the orchestra’s part. Due to the more open nature of the texture, the percussion was more prominent than in the Glinka and there was some difficulty with the syncopated rhythms in Variation 5, although it had been a well articulated and phrased performance until then. The pianist’s clarity in Variation 6 and 7’s textures was excellent, as was the complimentary bassoon solo in Variation 7. Variation 8 is extremely complex for both the orchestra and the soloist; whilst it was valiant, it was let down by indecisive semi-quaver passages, and inconsistent staccato in the woodwind section. Variation 10’s brass section was of particular note, very exciting and excellently marcato. Variation 11 is one of my personal favourites, Christopher’s ecstatic florituras and the chilling sustained chords from the orchestra really spoke well into the hall. Variation 15 was truly outstanding on the part of Mr Weston, extraordinary technique and clarity throughout, highlighting an almost hidden melody to a superb euphoria before the subdued ending.
The orchestra really came into it’s own in Variation 16, the interweaving solos soaring, seasoned by the accompaniment, gave great shape to this particular movement. The dark piano part of Variation 17 really showed off the brass and woodwind to good effect and although this section was bedevilled by intonation issues, it was shaped beautifully by the players.
Now into Ré flat major for the most famous ‘inverted’ melody in existence. Unfortunately, the orchestra had problems coordinating the rubato in this section but the 19th Variation quickly recovered and was discretely and playfully ‘vivace’. Overall, it was a joy to witness this performance which most amateur ensembles would be reluctant to attempt because of its rhythmic complexity. Very daring indeed! No wonder Rachmaninov himself needed a sip of Crème de menthe before the last Variation... 

Following the interval was the Mussorgsky, which proved to be rather educational and, to coin an old term, ‘multimedia’. Along with the stunning performance by Mr Weston at the piano, illustrating mainly the composer’s own original writing, were projected versions of the pictures Mussorgsky used as his inspiration for the piece. Despite some of the originals by Hartmann being lost, the usual substitutes by Monet et al were used, giving us as close a connection with the composer as possible; a nice touch! Tushmalov’s orchestration is the first of this piece (1891) and was really a homework task, set by Mussorgsky’s friend, Rimsky-Korsakov. It was particularly interesting to hear the subtle variations to ‘On the Promenade’ that the composer had utilised, which were particularly illuminated when on the piano. The woodwind’s ‘The Old Castle’ was very colourful and well shaped, truly a shining moment in the orchestra’s performance. ‘Ballet of the Chicks’ is a scherzo of quite considerable difficulty, with energetic passages followed by unison octaves which, if not perfectly tuned, ruin the effect. I’m pleased to say that the orchestra did pull this off very well apart from one occasion. ‘The Catacombs’ was truly a triumph for the orchestra; the smokey, shadowy image I’m sure, could have been conjured without it being projected; I am reminded of this performance and it’s effect on me whenever I hear this section. The reprise of the promenade as a countermelody within this segment is extremely tense and haunting! The string parts of ‘Baba Yaga’ were well executed indeed, particularly the extended unison passage. The build to ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ was gripping and exhilarating, providing a superb and clearly overwhelming rendition for all of this seismic finale.
The audiences reaction to the conclusion was rightfully generous. A truly challenging piece surrounded by a less-known work (although it shouldn’t be so!) and a usual favourite, just as a concert program should be! Mr Weston and Mr Lowen have clearly worked hard to bring this to such a successful fruition and it was a joy to experience.


Benjamin Scott

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