Russia before and after the revolution, and a link
with the season's Spanish theme in a recent Russian take on two Albeniz
tangos, all conducted by the BBC Philharmonic's Russian-born principal
guest conductor Vassily Sinaisky.
According to Rodion Shchedrin, his Albeniz arrangements
were inspired by his wife, former Bolshoy ballerina Mayya Plisetskaya
in the same way as his Carmen Suite 30 years earlier. The original
Albeniz works, one from his Espana Suite and the other the second
of his Morceaux caracteristiques, evoke Southern Spain rather
than the dance halls of Argentina, although at times the music seemed
to me more French, or Ravelian, than Spanish - a sentiment also expressed
by Sinaisky. The mood in both tangos is often sombre, with mournful
woodwind harmonies and a sinuous, sultry oboe leitmotif in the first.
Jazzy trumpet solos lighten the mood, and there is a surprise ending
to the second which Sinaisky and Philharmonic pull off with great aplomb.
If Shchedrin's tangos were tinged with melancholy,
Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto is positively suicidal: the work
makes no attempt at false jubilation or jauntiness. The composer was
at work on the Concerto in February 1948 when the famous Central Committee
'anti-distortion' resolution was passed. The resolution was to cost
him his teaching posts at the Moscow and Leningrad Conservatories, but
it seems to have had no effect on his Violin Concerto, which he withheld
until the political thaw in 1953. The four movement titles (Nocturne,
Scherzo, Passacaglia and Burlesca, plus cadenza) belie the 'symphonic
thinking' behind the work, as its dedicatee David Oistrakh put it. 'The
performer plays a pithy, 'Shakespearean' role which demands complete
emotional and intellectual involvement [as well as ample virtuosity]'.
Ilya Gringolts was equal to all those demands. If his sound is not perhaps
as big as it might be, he produced a dark, intense and deeply heartfelt
account from the beginning, gliding in on the G and gradually ascending
a tortured path to brilliant climactic notes in the angular Nocturne.
Moving to the music in the Scherzo's frenetic dance of death, this svelte
violinist reminded me of the similarly boyish Nigel Kennedy. In the
lyrical, more peaceful Passacaglia, violin and orchestra threatened
to get out of synch but Gringolts remained intensely focused throughout,
bringing off the punishing cadenza with panache, if not with Vengerovian
After such gut-wrenching, Rachmaninov's Second seemed
almost tame at first in the hands of this team, their lush and highly
accomplished performance too easy in its fluency. But Rachmaninov
can always be relied on to break in on the music, just when it is getting
too comfortable, with a startling call to arms. Sinaisky steered the
orchestra effortlessly through these many swift changes of gear as one
who could conduct the work in his sleep, summoning a very powerful body
of orchestral sound with exquisite solos from around the orchestra,
notably the clarinet's long-breathed line in the Adagio.