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S & H Concert Review

Prokofiev, Shostakovich Vadim Repin (violin); Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo); New London Children’s Choir; London Philharmonic Choir; Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy. Royal Festival Hall, Sunday, March 16th, 2003 (CC)


Vladimir Ashkenazy’s ongoing and wide-ranging festival, ‘Papa, what if they hang you for this?: Prokofiev and Shostakovich under Stalin’ continued with this fascinating programme. As Ashkenazy stated in his written introduction, ‘This programme is based on the principle of contrast – two ‘Party pieces’ by Prokofiev juxtaposed with the masterpiece which is Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto.’ The contrast between the authority-driven first half and the highly personal world of the second was indeed stark and telling. The excellence of the performances acted as a pointer towards the dedication from all concerned.

The four posters that were hanging down from the RFH ceiling were chilling. They said, ‘Glory to Comrade Stalin,’ two in English, two in Russian. The faces of Stalin seemed to be there to keep an eye on the performance.

Prokofiev’s fifteen minute, orchestral ‘Festive Poem’, The Meeting of the Volga and the Don, Op. 130 (1951) opened the concert. The piece was composed to mark the building of a canal to join the Volga and the Don and therefore to revitalise Russia’s links with Central Asia (but which was essentially an ecological disaster). The rousing trumpet fanfares which begin the work lead to a succession of themes which, whilst light in nature, seem to yearn to blossom into something closer to true Prokofiev. Some passages of this work are even comical (in fact the bizarre coda is positively outrageous!). Orchestration is frequently striking: the vision of the Don, with its glistening xylophone, is one particularly memorable moment. The Philharmonia played magnificently. A liquid, molten clarinet solo which led the Andante section was truly beautiful, contrasting with the almost militaristic precision of the strings at times (their articulation was impeccable). Riccardo Muti recorded this piece back in 1990 with the Philadelphia Orchestra (on Philips, coupled with the Fifth Symphony): could I make a plea at this point for its reinstatement in the catalogue? This is, of course, the ideal time for this type of activity …

Of course the idea of dictatorships is pretty much foremost in most people’s minds at the time of writing, and so the second Prokofiev piece, On Guard for Peace, Op. 124, (1950) seemed particularly relevant. Its affirmations of peace above all else hit home hard (‘Let unshakeable peace on Earth be the heroes’ reward’; ‘Peace to all peoples on Earth, We do not want war’ etc). This was Prokofiev’s last large-scale experiment with the Cantata/Oratorio model, and he cuts no corners. The scoring is for large orchestra, chorus, children’s choir, mezzo soloist and boy soloist. From the dissonant opening emerges a blazing choral statement in the major (‘Scarce had Earth recovered from the Thunder of War’). Throughout Prokofiev uses his forces to maximum effect and contrast. There is much rousing music here, appropriately for the subject matter, but much beauty also: the image of ‘Our little Muscovite boy/Has thrown out of an attic window/A young dove, like a ball’ is incredibly touching, for example. Ashkenazy himself refers to the ‘Lullaby’ (the seventh movement) as a particular highlight. It is, indeed, very beautiful. More’s the pity, then, that the mezzo soloist, Lilli Paasikivi, was over-vibratoed. This was a particular shame given the delicacy of the accompaniment on this occasion. Ashkenazy’s own voice was heard over the loudspeakers in the spoken ninth movement, ‘Conversation in the Ether’: a nice touch and one that seemed to underline his belief in this venture. If the end of the piece was hackneyed (tambourines at full tilt!), it remained rousing in the extreme and provided the perfect foil to the second half.

Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 77, was completed in 1948, but not premièred until 1955 (with David Oistrakh as soloist). It was, rightly, greeted as a masterpiece. Vadim Repin, the soloist on this occasion, has already recorded the piece (with the Hallé Orchestra under Nagano on Erato 0630-10696-2, coupled with Prokofiev’s Second). His identification seemed complete, both with the composer, and with Philharmonia under Ashkenazy, so that if on paper a second-half violin concerto might have appeared anti-climactic, the reverse was true in the flesh. After a bleak opening on cellos and basses, Repin sung a seemingly unending melody that gained more and more intensity as it moved on. Control is of the utmost importance in this music, and Repin’s was complete, his high register ultra-sweet, his lower register dark and compelling. His virtuosity shone in the Scherzo (a mercurial, swirlingly grotesque dance). How great the contrast, then, with the Passacaglia, the stern orchestra balancing the tender soloist perfectly. The deep, throaty tone Repin brought forth from his 1708 Stradivarius was almost (I did say almost) as impressive as his remarkable, almost super-human cadenza and the roller-coaster ride of the finale, its momentum energising the audience into a rightfully enthusiastic ovation.

This whole series of concerts is one of the most worthwhile to have been heard in London in recent years: and there are plenty of riches still to come.

Colin Clarke




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