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S & H Concert Review

Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky London Symphony Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov, Barbican Hall, September 28th, 2003 (CC)


Such riches, and so early in the season. This was a concert of short measure on paper (Petrushka and Nutcracker, Act 2: indeed, it finished shortly after 9pm), yet one which was packed with such intrinsic understanding of the music and so much inspired playing from the LSO that it effectively erased memories of the entire concert season in that huge, round place in Kensington.

Temirkanov is one of those rare conductors who are acclaimed by audiences and orchestral musicians alike. No mere technician, it was instructive that this performance of Stravinsky’s Petrushka should come so soon after Mehta’s with the Israel Philharmonic at the Proms. Mehta’s was a virtuoso performance; Temirkanov’s came more obviously from the world of the ballet. Temirkanov also uncovered so much detail, consistently shedding light on a score that I believed I knew inside out. Everything was so carefully balanced it was almost miraculous (how much rehearsal time did they have?) Temirkanov’s conducting technique was astonishing in its expressivity. Batonless, each and every gesture was intended for the musicians, not for the audience, and each had a real point.

The opening gesture (a left-hand down-beat like a karate chop) set the piece off with razor-sharp precision. Heavy ‘cellos and basses pounded their way along and the polytonal passages came across in masterly fashion. At fortissimo, chords remained expertly prepared, the Hauptstimmen (to borrow a term from another world!) ever audible. And yet there was also humour here: the contrabassoon’s staccato ejaculations actually caused members of the audience to laugh out loud, something completely refreshing in the sometimes staid concert scene in London (usually audience reactions are restricted to bronchial explosions and sundry mobile ring-tones!).

Although a concert performance, there was no doubt where this piece’s origins lie. The graphically slithering strings that preface Petrushka’s two-clarinet motif were evidence enough of an imaginary stage, as were the dark and gestural workings of the Third Tableau (set in the Moor’s cell). The final Tableau, back at the Shrovetide Fair, captured the festive atmosphere perfectly. The various dances (nursemaids, dancing bear, coachmen etc) were vividly characterised. Taking the alternative (and somewhat abrupt) close from the 1947 version, even the end held its surprise. This was dynamic and invigorating music making at its best. It was a hard act to follow.

But follow it they did, with a colourful, infectiously painted account of the second act of Tchaikovsky’s delightful Nutcracker. Now, I am not a balletomane by inclination so my first confession is that concert performance is my preferred exposure point for this genre. Temirkanov’s feeling for Tchaikovsky’s 1892 masterpiece was acute, the feeling of the dance perfectly projected. The opening (‘Clara and the Prince arrive at Confiturenberg’) was lush and luxuriant, the harp decorations vividly evocative of this fairy-tale world, the long-breathed string lines showing the composer at his most compositionally confident; archetypically Romantic, certainly, and all the more convincing for it. In addition, there appeared to be real joy in the outpourings: perhaps the rarity of this excursion into ballet territory helped the LSO’s almost child-like sense of discovery, yet the miracle was that simultaneously they sounded so confident that they could have been on home turf.

Act Two of Nutcracker suits concert performance so well because it is in essence a selection of individual numbers (as opposed to the ongoing narrative structure of Act One). The dances that make up the ‘Divertissement’, some of the most famous music of this score, were beautifully and individually characterized. The ‘Spanish Dance’ (‘Chocolate’) produced a marvellous sense of half-voice from the orchestra; the ‘Dance of the Little Flutes’ was dainty, as light as air. Predominantly fast speeds led to excitement, rather than any feeling of breathlessness.

Of course, the ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ is probably the most famous excerpt from this score. The harp cadenza was truly lovely, the tempo a true waltz. In fact, this particular waltz was filled with delight. Rallentandi were cheeky, their timing nothing short of heavenly, providing a perfect partner for the ensuing ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ with its silvery, sweet celesta. Temirkanov imbued the climax of the final ‘Pas de Deux’ (for the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince) with massive Tchaikovskian intensity. This account was quite simply unforgettable: to have such a Petrushka in the first part, too, was just spoiling us.

Colin Clarke



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