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S & H Concert Review

Stravinsky Pulcinella, Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky, LSO & Chorus, Soloists, Richard Hickox, Barbican 26th January 2003 (AR)

Richard Hickox conductor
Sara Mingardo alto
Kenneth Tarver tenor
Lorenzo Regazzo bass
London Symphony Chorus

In an evening devoted to Russian music, Stravinsky’s Pulcinella (1919) was given a slick and highly polished performance by Richard Hickox and the London Symphony Orchestra, and this was the basic draw back. It was too well mannered.

Stravinsky’s commedia del ‘arte ballet, scored for 33 chamber players and three vocal soloists, is a witty pastiche of a selection of Pergolesi’s melodies. While the conductor seemed to get the pace of the music spot on there was something perversely dull and opaque about his interpretation (or lack of it). For instance, the potentially conversational exchanges between string quartet and the full LSO strings went for nothing.

The knockabout comedy openly invades the music in the form of a slapstick duet between trombone and double bass. Yet under Hickox, the solo trombone and double bass (with ‘cello accompaniment) was missing the grotesque humour it ideally needed: the trombone here should sound raucous and rasping, whilst the double bass should be gritty and jagged. Otto Klemperer’s droll ‘live’ 1957 Bavarian Radio account of the Pulcinella Suite is deliberately ‘vulgar’ – the grotesque glissandi are absolutely right, the perfectly blown raspberry reminding us that commedia del ‘arte is essentially about red noses and breaking wind. The LSO trombonist must not be afraid to fart when the occasion demands it.

Hickox’ failure to acknowledge the jagged rhythms that this score calls for led to a performance which was far too formal. A failure to appreciate that this suite is not decorous drawing room comedy, like Walton’s ‘Façade’, meant the woodwind came across as flat, lacking any real sense of character. There was not enough contrast and delineation between the string sections, either, with the ‘cellos and double basses forgoing the requisite level of attack required. In contrast, the three soloists acquitted themselves well, injecting just the right degree of humour into the proceedings. Even if the conductor did not really understand this piece, the soloists certainly did.

Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky (1939) is an edited version of his full-length film score for Eisenstien’s film, broken down into a seven-movement cantata. The work was given a crude run-through in an excessively noisy performance, missing dynamic contrast and tension. The opening ‘Russia under the Mongolian Yoke’ was bland with the LSO playing too loudly and harshly and with little sense of pathos or tragedy.

The famous ‘Jaws’ like motif in ‘Battle on The Ice’ lacked the build up of sound and tension needed to make the orchestral textures bloom convincingly. Sounding more like a riot than a battle, with the orchestra perilously close to distortion, textures were smudged. With Hickox failing to control his forces, important ‘cello and double bass configurations, as well as woodwind detail, were sacrificed to an overbearing cacophony.

‘The Field of The Dead’ was by far the most successfully rendered section of the score. Sara Mingardo sung the Lament movingly, with crystalline precision and intensity, accompanied by some very sensitive string playing. Noise returned with ‘Alexander’s Entry into Pskov’, the LSO percussion showing a wont of musicality. Only timpanist Andrew Smith (on loan from the Philharmonia?) played with his usual precision and intensity. If you want to hear how this music should be performed, listen to Karel Ancerl, Vera Soukupova, and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus (catalogue number: Supraphon 11 1948-2).

The LSO chorus, although singing in Russian, sounded curiously anglicised, almost as if they were singing Belshazzar’s Feast. With Hickox failing to martial any discipline amongst his forces the orchestra was left to run riot in a noisy performance full of sound and fury, but little else.

Alex Russell


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