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Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Shchedrin Elena Prokina (soprano); Mark Tucker (tenor); Sergei Leiferkus (baritone); Harriet Walter (reciter); Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano). Queen Elizabeth Hall, Friday, March 21st, 2003 (CC)


There was a certain amount of confusion around this concert. First, it was announced that the tenor Ilya Levitsky had cancelled due to a throat infection and that Mark Tucker had taken his place at the eleventh hour. Next, when we did eventually start, there was confusion as to what piece we would hear first. Actually, it was (as originally programmed) Prokofiev’s Five poems of Akhmatova, Op. 27, performed (exquisitely) by soprano Elena Prokina accompanied by Ashkenazy.

When I first heard Prokina live at the Proms some years back, her status as a star (in the best sense of the word) seemed undeniable. The chance to hear her in the Akhmatova settings was a true privilege. The beauty of the poems of Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) chosen by Prokofiev lies in their restrained beauty, and they brought out the more lyrical side of this composer. Prokina was in her element, her characterisation of the text stunning, from the warmly autumnal ‘Memories of the sunlight’ (No. 3) to the power in ‘Greeting’ (No. 4). The fifth and final song, ‘The king with grey eyes’, however, is surely Prokofiev at his finest, and both interpreters seemed to realise this, Ashkenazy setting the atmosphere perfectly with the ominous tread of his left hand. It was Ashkenazy, however, who seemed the weak link here overall: his tone lacks the ability for true depth that gives it a one-dimensional sheen.

The Shostakovich, originally planned as the grand finale to the evening, actually came before the interval. The Suite on Verses by Michelangel Buonarotti, Op. 145 is a late-Shostakovich masterpiece and carries all the hall-marks of his late style, from sparseness of lines to bleak emotional statements. It is difficult to imagine a finer interpreter than baritone Sergei Leiferkus. He can be authoritative and defiant (as in the anti-religious ‘Truth’: ‘to expect any reward from you is like expecting fruit from a dry tree’) or almost unbearably touching (as in ‘Night’). The miracle of his voice is that its powerful, burnished lower register loses none of its tone or penetrating communicative effect as it reaches into his higher register.

The Buonarotti setting is a truly shattering work. Ashkenazy also brought depth of meaning to the bleak, stark piano lines, revelling in the piano outburst of ‘Creativity’. It is easy to see why this was originally scheduled as the grand finale to the concert.

Rodion Shchedrin (born 1932) was present for the first UK performance of My Age, My Wild Beast, a vocal cycle on words by Osip Mandelstam for tenor, story-teller and piano, written in 2002. Tenor Ilya Levinsky was due to be soloist, but cancelled due to a throat infection, leaving Mark Tucker to fill in at the last moment. My Age, My Wild Beast is dedicated to Vladimir Ashkenazy and is written for two soloists, a tenor soloist who takes the role of Osip Mandelstam and a reciter (Harriet Walter in this performance) who takes the part of Anna Akhmatova.

There was some scene-setting on stage: the Storyteller was positioned in an armchair, with side table and cosy sidelight. Walter appeared in period dress, reciting with Jackanory-like clarity the story of Osip Mandelstam, quoting from Anna Akhmatova’s ‘Diaries’along the way.

Shchedrin makes many demands on his interpreters, most of which were expertly realised here. Occasionally, Tucker sounded too ‘English’, too clean, but he handled the cruelly-high passages with confidence. Ashkenazy seemed in his element, lending much meaning to the spare textures.

A remarkable evening.

Colin Clarke



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