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S & H Prom Review

PROM 45: Musorgsky, orch. Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich. Prokofiev, Christian Tetzlaff (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, 23rd August, 2002 (AR)


Leonard Slatkin’s all-Russian programme with the BBC Symphony Orchestra began with a glowing account of Modest Musorgsky’s Khovanshchina – Prelude. This was an eloquent and sensitive performance, with the BBC SO’s seductive phrasing enhancing a magical sense of distilled calm at dawn: rarely have I heard this conductor and orchestra in such close and sympathetic rapport.

Christian Tetzlaff’s urgent, intense and insightful interpretation of Dimitry Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no.1 in A minor was central to this Prom’s success. Tetzlaff’s intoxicating tone in the opening Nocturne had a mysteriously opaque, yet distant, quality, so right for this movement. His playing came into focus in the Scherzo where he produced a rugged, gutsy style - perfectly complemented by the dancing, biting woodwinds.

The Cadenza was a knife-edge experience and his razor-sharp, yet highly refined, tone seemed to float the nerve-edged notes between sound and silence. The finale was taken at a pace verging on hysteria, but Tetzlaff remained in total command, producing remarkable playing from his modern, German made Peter Greiner instrument.

What makes this violinist unique is his contradiction of sounds: he can be both sensational and subdued, intense but reserved. While his Shostakovich is on the fast side, this was Tetzlaff’s own reading, stripped of rhetorical excess: his sparseness and subtlety are his strengths of expression. This was extraordinary artistry, further enhanced by the sympathetic support from Slatkin and the BBC SO.

The final offering of one hour of excerpts from Sergey Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet - (1935-6, rev. 1940) was for the most part a routine run-through with some uninspired, not to say mediocre playing. The Dance of the Knights lacked swagger, but the Balcony Scene and Love Dance had all the lyrical sweep one could have asked for. A novelty was some sprightly music from a mandolin quartet in Act 2, Dance With Mandolins, which was poetically played; it is a pity that this is often omitted from concert ‘highlights’.

The acid test for both conductors and orchestras in this score is the Death of Tybalt. This was not a great performance of it: excepting some incisive timpani, it lacked panache and the brass and strings missed the savagery so palpable in the music. Both Slatkin and orchestra were at their best in the two closing sections: Juliet’s Funeral and Juliet’s Death where we heard some very solemn string playing and fragile, poignant phrasing.

While Slatkin has done some fine work with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (during the late seventies and early eighties, including exciting live performances of Edgar Varese's Integrals and Nielsen’s 5th Symphony) his tenure with the BBC SO has too often been uninspiring, routine and disappointing. This concert was largely a perfect example of that.

Alex Russell

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