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Kirklees Orchestral Concerts: Rachmaninov: The Isle of the Dead, Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3, Stravinsky: Ballet “Petrushka” (1947 version). Evgenia Rubinova (piano), Orchestra of Opera North, Richard Farnes (conductor), Huddersfield Town Hall, Wednesday 30 November 2005 (P Se)



Arnold Böcklin's 'The Isle of the Dead'

 

In recent years, one local critic in particular has complained about the small numbers of double-basses fielded at Kirklees orchestral concerts – and not without some justification. More than once, sitting right next to him, I heard his sigh of resignation at the presence on the platform of a measly four basses – and a couple of times, I seem to recall, as few as three. “It simply isn’t good enough,” he told me once and after listening carefully, I found myself agreeing with him.

On Wednesday
, the Orchestra of Opera North squeezed no fewer than six basses onto Huddersfield Town Hall’s fairly limited platform, and what a whopping difference it made! I couldn’t help recalling however, that back in the 1960s when my youthful bum wriggled on a seat in Bradford’s St. George’s Hall, how people grumbled about the Hallé fielding only six – in those days, the norm was surely eight, wasn’t it? Anyway, a great big tick to Opera North for beefing up the numbers to something approaching that norm - here’s hoping that they make it a habit.

So, what’s behind this diatribe exactly? The answer’s simple – the first of the concert’s trio of works by early Twentieth Century Russian “ex-pats”. I can only imagine what Rachmaninov’s grim and gruesome Isle of the Dead would have sounded like with only three basses propping up the basement ceiling, but it took less than a couple of minutes to convince me of the virtues of half a dozen.

At the season’s opening concert in September (see review), I had been  struck by the dramatic approach of Richard Farnes, ON’s music director, and was brimming with anticipation at opportunities for more drama presented by this programme. I was not disappointed, and neither, I suppose, would Dylan Thomas have been, at least in respect of the “bible-blackness” of the string bass sound. The essential feature of Arnold Böcklin's 1886 painting 'The Isle of the Dead' (which Rachmaninov first saw in monochrome) is its darkness which all too often seduces conductors into adopting a “funereal” approach to the music. As with the slow movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the September concert however, Richard Farnes was having none of that. He set a brisk basic tempo, but one whose rocking reflected the slow but unrelenting progress of the boat in the picture.

Those Barbirolli-style white cuffs, on which I have commented previously, were soon well in evidence, coupled with a generous, flowing beat of which Boult himself would have approved. With these expressive armaments, Richard Farnes moulded his basic pulse, urging the music onward through its terraced, terrifying climaxes and dwelling longer in its sombre, ruminative valleys. Any tendency towards undue jollity was negated by careful attention to texture; the basses' black velvet seeped upwards through the strings and laterally through to the winds. From this beautifully integrated sound Farnes teased out the threads of the melodic lines, evoking a macabre memory of the Concerto Grosso style. Yet, even where Rachmaninov permitted some lightening of the textures, Farnes ensured that the pallor of Death was properly pervasive. I couldn’t help thinking, somewhat inconsistently, “There’s nothing like a bit of good, old-fashioned Russian melancholy to brighten up a damp and drab English winter’s evening.” Twenty minutes into the concert, and I was feeling that the audience had already had its money’s worth!

 

The first of the two very substantial “encores” that followed featured Evgenia Rubinova, who is not only a sight fairer to look at than most pianists, but a good deal fairer to listen to than many. I get the impression that there are two ways of approaching Prokofiev – either as a thoroughly “modern” composer, or as a neo-Romantic. To my mind, Prokofiev is six of one and half a dozen of the other and to some extent, what gave the Ashkenazy/Previn recordings of the Piano Concertos their long-held place of honour in the record catalogue was a tension between these opposing views.  Ashkenazy saw Prokofiev as thoroughly modern, rhythmically propulsive and aggressive, while Previn insisted on emphasising the composer’s Romantic lyricism.

 

Rubinova seems to incline more towards the Ashkenazy approach and although, judging by the preceding Rachmaninov, I might have expected Farnes, to play the “Previn” rôle, instead he chose mainly to follow the soloist's lead. This was by no means a poor performance though, far from it, and clearly revelling in Prokofiev’s pianism, Rubinova ripped her way into the first movement’s main allegro. She also caught to a “T” the brittle quality of the “tipsy” tune, showering the audience in shards of prickly sound. Exciting? Yes, indeed, but maybe something was missing: it felt a little tight-lipped sometimes - or too single-minded - and perhaps even  a trifle short on wit and humour.

 

The remaining movements told a similar story. Rubinova’s approach fitted the mock-classical march of the second movement like a glove, but for me she didn’t lollop enough in the lolloping variation even though, towards the end, she generated tremendous drive. The finale started off as a real “ballet méchanique”, slightly spoiled when Rubinova upped the tempo and the orchestra lost touch with her a little. The coda, though, was sensational. Adopting a truly furious tempo, Rubinova’s attack was crystal-clear, and those devilish dovetailed chords were electrifying.

 

If I am in danger of giving the impression that Rubinova is some sort of Coppelian clockwork doll, let me quickly balance the books. At the lyrical heart of the first movement, she relaxed to become nigh-on whimsical, she floated her line beguilingly in the second mowement and the finale’s Rachmaninov-like reprise found her as romantic as anyone could wish. I just have this feeling that if she could just loosen up even more on occasions, she could easily become one of the “all-time greats” in this work.

 

To round off the Prokofiev, let me tidy up another potential false impression. While supporting the pianist faithfully, Richard Farnes and his orchestra hadn’t exactly taken a holiday, and the orchestral sound tickled my ears repeatedly. My only real carp concerned the castanets, hardly commonplace in Prokofiev’s percussion complement, and worthy of more consistent audibility. This aside, the orchestral sound was very fine and made the most out of Prokofiev’s often exotic scoring. The many entrancing individual contributions were matched by superb ensemble-work, notably the expansive return of the opening clarinet melody, the spine-tingling “shivering” of the second movement, and what I think of as the “haunted house” episode in the finale, where the woodwind made a pretty fair imitation of ghoulish birdsong.

 

Expecting Richard Farnes to shine once again with Petrushka, I was a mite taken aback at his opening tempo, which - for once – felt too fast. The bustling crowds at the Shrovetide Fair are everyday folk, not Olympic sprinters after all. Still, if you’re going to put a foot wrong, it’s better that it’s at the first step and not the last, I suppose. One of the most striking aspects about the sound palette of this music is the contrast that Stravinsky draws between “warm flesh” and “bare bones”, reflecting the dramatic contrast between the characters' public bonhomie and private vitriol. Farnes used his baton like an artist’s brush, painting in the richest colours, now etching in the sharpest detail, and sometimes both together. Rolf Harris should watch his back.

 

Let’s walk through it. If the opening was too quick, it was nonetheless sonorous and vividly syncopated, with commendably fruity “parping” from the tuba.. The barrel-organ piped and wheezed - and after the dulled castanets in the Prokofiev, the triangle was literally brilliant. As the showman touted his booth, the contrabassoon sounded disgusting (that’s a compliment) and the solo flute was eloquent and pliant and as ad lib as you like. Farnes’s realisation of Stravinsky’s spell-casting was actually spell-binding, and led to an exceptionally well-articulated Russian Dance. The piano was perhaps a bit buried in the ensemble, but with some well-engineered crescendi and cracking good horn surges, the whole thing bounced thing along delightfully.

 

In the Second Tableau, Farnes caught Petrushka’s gradual change of mood, from desolated to furious, to such good effect that it reminded me sharply of Disney's Donald Duck. Even better, something was held back so that Petrushka could throw a real purple tantrum when the Ballerina flounced by him.

 

All of this energy, wholly justified the labyrinthine depth of gloom at the start of the Third Tableau. In the Moor’s Dance the clarinet and bassoon had the quality of sump-oil, but the cor anglais was, if anything, even oilier. Here, once again, it was so good to hear the impact of a decent number of double-basses. Finally, the comic aspects of the Moor’s attempts to dance with the Ballerina were shockingly contrasted with Petrushka’s reaction, which is anything but comical. It says much of the performance that I was made aware of such things in a work that is otherwise so familiar.

 

The big “public” scene that forms the bulk of the Fourth and final Tableau had me thinking of Ligeti’s Clocks and Clouds, not for the sound itself so much, but for the principle. Why? Well, Farnes managed to erect a wall of gorgeously opulent sound, replete with succulent horns and ripe bass, and yet never lost sight of all the myriad sparkling details, in particular the pin-prick precision of ON’s pizzicati. This was all so delicious that I sensed a real feeling of public panic when the huge bear lumbered onto the scene, not to mention a feeling of graduated relief as the “danger” passed from sight.

 

The resumption of popular festivities worked up into a real Russian “Peasants’ Merrymaking”, underpinned by lots of gruff, weighty bass. Helped along by a juicy, jolly trombone solo, the orchestra pushed down good and hard on the “pleasure” button – the drama-oriented Mr. Farnes seemed obviously intent on maximising the shock value of the impending interruption. Again, I was not disappointed. The insurgence of the puppets’ private war into the public arena should sound catastrophic, a prototype for the musical disintegration at the corresponding point of Stravinsky’s next ballet, Le Sacre du Printemps. And so it did: Farnes steered the playing out of the final dramatic events with immense flair. The contrast between the tremolando cello harmonics and David Greed’s saccharine-sweet violin was marrow-chilling, and the closing pages sounded so haunted, so still, setting up perfectly that one last shock – the “nose-thumbing” of those acrid piccolo trumpets. One word sums it up: excellent.

 

Now, what was that I said about “damp and drab English winter’s evenings”?

 

 

Paul Serotsky

 



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