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Seen and Heard Prom Review


PROM 8: Stravinsky, MacMillan, Ravel Soloists, BBC Singers, BBC Philharmonic/Gianandrea Noseda, James MacMillan, RAH, 21 July, 2005 (CC)



The BBC Philharmonic is a real force for good in this country. The programmes this orchestra presents are unfailingly inventive and always delivered with the highest musical standards in mind. Typical of this adventurous programming was this Prom. A rare opportunity to hear Stravinsky's opera The Nightingale sat next to a London Premiere and, finally, Ravel's elusive take on the Waltz.


The impressive array of Russian-speaking (and singing) soloists for the opera included Sergei Leiferkus as the Emperor. Leiferkus rarely disappoints, and such was the case here. He was, however, upstaged by the superb Nightingale herself, the stunning Olga Trifonova. Her technique is faultless, so much so she almost persuaded me this was an easy role to sing. Her slurs were squeaky-clean, her sound lovely, with a slight edge that positively glistens. Her first entry in Act III ('Here I am, great Emperor') was absolutely radiant, her final solos proving she can do lyric as well as coloratura. When Leiferkus and Trifonova sang together in the final stages, it was clear one was in the presence of two major, world-class artists.


Tenor Evgeny Akimov made for a plaintive Fisherman, strong of voice and firm of attack. Irina Tchistyakova was a full-voiced Death, possibly a little matronly but excellent in her dialogue with the Nightingale towards the close of the opera. Alas the casting was not all on such an exalted level, with Darren Jeffery's bass-baritone Chamberlain continually straining and Ailish Tynan's Kitchenmaid, while displaying confidence, needed more projection (a similar criticism could be levelled at Daniel Borowski's Bonze).


Gianandrea Noseda steered the whole performance with a light touch and with good attentiveness towards his soloists (although he did nearly drown Leiferkus at one point). There was a palpable sense, too, of the orchestra enjoying this unfamiliar yet very appealing territory.


James MacMillan's A Scotch Bestiary – enigmatic variations on a zoological carnival at a Caledonian exhibition (to give it its full title) is a virtuoso, 35-minute showpiece, full of wit and imagination, but also including a characteristic rawness. The Barbican Festival early this year (here) served as a reminder of MacMillan's strengths.


A Scotch Bestiary is 'inspired by human archetypes and personalities encountered in Scottish life over the years' – it parodies various aspects of Scottish life, including Arts Subsidy (the lack thereof). MacMillan indeed mocks a fanfare for the opening of the Scottish Parliament in the movement, 'Scottish Patriots'. The work was premiered in Los Angeles, and MacMillan also writes a very personal homage to Walt Disney, the cartoon characters (a Queen Bee, Uncle Tom Cat etc) making the link clear. MacMillan provides detailed commentary for the first movement ('The menagerie, caged') then complements this with the second movement ('The menagerie, uncaged'), a 'free-wheeling, through-composed fantasy' (MacMillan). Typical of the composer are the underlying lyricism and the appearance of 'keening' motifs. His 'Promenade' material is clear, the refrain appearing, a la Mussorgsky, in various guises, including the almost-noble.


The second movement carries no such detailed programme. It is hectic, sparked off by violent chords (garish green, for those who like colours to their music).  The metaphor of uncaging leading to a fantasy which thankfully is not unnecessarily diffuse – very disciplined composition giving the impression of abandon, no small feat. Wayne Marshall despatched the virtuoso organ part magnificently. Another triumph for this composer, who directed the performance admirably.


The Ravel La valse was the only disappointment of the evening. Despite some sophisticated playing from the strings, cellos could have glowed more and the full frenzy of the ending was a little short. Much to admire, nevertheless. It is just that it failed to reach the heights of either the Stravinsky or the MacMillan.



Colin Clarke



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