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Swansea Festival 2008 (3): Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Stephen Hough (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / David Atherton (conductor), Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 10.10.2008 (GPu)

Glinka, Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila
Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No 1, in B flat minor
Rachmaninov, Symphony No.2 in E minor

The overture to Glinka’s opera Ruslan and Lyudmila has an explosive opening. The explosion was given added impact by the manner in which David Atherton turned from his initial acknowledgement of the audience to begin the performance with virtually no pause. The fortissimo chords for full orchestra made a powerful – and in many ways very appropriate – opening to a programme full of orchestral fireworks. Glinka was crucial to the creation of the musical idiom of which Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov were both heirs.

Glinka’s overture was written in haste when the opera was already in rehearsal. If that sounds like a more or less Rossinian state of affairs, the implied analogy may not be an altogether bad one. The overture does, indeed, sound rather as it might have done if Rossini had been a Russian! It is full of verve and brilliance, but with episodes of graceful melody; an energetic, even hectic first theme contrasts with a lyrical second theme. There is also something more than a little Rossinian about the account Glinka gave of the piece’s origins. The composer was at a wedding dinner in the Russian court: "I was up in the balcony, and the clattering of knives, forks and plates impressed me so much that I formed the idea of imitating them in the overture to Ruslan”. But there is much – especially as regards tonality and the use of the whole-tone scale that is not at all Rossinian and which did much to form the musical minds and habits of the next generation of Russian composers. The piece itself is vividness incarnate, not least in the coda where the bell-like sound of the brass section was impressive in an attractive and exciting performance, in which the quality of the orchestra’s ensemble work was of a very high order.

Glinka exerted more than a little influence on Tchaikovsky and there was a real aptness in the fact that Glinka’s overture was succeeded by a performance of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto. As it happened, I had heard the very same piece the night before in Cardiff, with Dmitri Alexeev as soloist, with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier. I won’t dwell on comparisons between the two performers, save to say that the Cardiff performance had an inwardness, an emotional weight, that the Swansea performance largely lacked. What we heard from Stephen Hough, David Atherton and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales was a more obviously exciting performance. It was, indeed, a bravura reading. Stephen Hough’s work at the keyboard was full of flashing runs and heavily accented chords; the work of the orchestra was often dazzling in its brilliance and certainty; David Atherton’s interpretation was full of fierce contrasts of dynamics and tempo. But, at times, it all came perilously close to seeming just a display of virtuosity; even if it never did become just that, there was a sense that, as it were, the musical surface had been looked after rather more than what was behind it. With a pianist as good as Hough and a conductor as experienced as Atherton, there were, of course, times when the dazzling surface allowed the glance to penetrate it – the prestissimo scherzando section of the second movement was played particularly beautifully, as the pianist played above the strings’ presentation of the melody from a French chansonette called ‘Il faut s’amuser, danser et rire’, a fashionable chansonette often sung by Désirée Artôt de Padilla, to whom Tchaikovsky dedicated his 1868 Romance in F minor, for piano, Op. 5, and to whom he proposed in the same year. Hence Balakirev’s extraordinary choice of image in praising the love theme of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture: “the second D flat tune is delightful … It is full of tenderness and the sweetness of love … When I play it I imagine you are lying naked in your bath and that the Artôt-Padilla herself is washing your stomach with hot lather from scented soap”! ‘The Artôt-Padilla herself’ might equally have come into Balakirev’s mind on hearing the lovely treatment which her chansonette received in the nocturnal music of this fine performance of the second movement of the concerto (more purely beautiful than that of Alexeev and Tortelier, to allow myself one last glance backwards). With the finale, momentum and theatricality took over again, the momentum such that at times there was less sense of dance rhythms and sublimated folk music than some of the very best performances of this movement bring out. The dash and glamour, the virtuoso piano playing and the orchestral colour were all there in abundance, but some other qualities were in slightly shorter supply in this reading of a familiar concerto.

As they have done so often of late, the BBC Welsh National Orchestra had already shown the outstanding quality of their work and the good impression they had already made was very much confirmed in a resplendent performance of Rachmaninov’s second symphony, conducted with obvious pleasure and considerable insight by David Atherton. Rachmaninov was so broken by the failure of his first symphony at its premiere in 1897 that it took the ministrations of a hypnotist, Nikolai Dahl, to restore his confidence sufficiently for him to return to composition and the challenge of tackling a second symphony seemed particularly daunting. Events in the outer world were less than propitious too and in 1906 Rachmaninov sought escape from the social and political disturbances of Russia and based himself in Dresden. It was there that he worked at his second symphony. There is nostalgia for the homeland in the music, and a broader, indefinable sehnsucht as much personal as nationalistic, both tinged with a strong sense of the elegiac. It is, largely speaking, a work of fairly sombre harmonies, full of rich orchestral textures and long, shapely melodic lines. The very ‘Russian’ melancholy of much of the first movement was well caught here, the lower strings particularly eloquent and with something of the musical gravitas one hears in the best Russian orchestras. Atherton’s conducting skilfully, and without exaggeration, spotlit those moments at which solo instruments – first an oboe, then a clarinet and finally a violin – mark key structural and developmental points in the movement, the violin introducing the emergence of a huge climax, played with tremendous precision and power, with some shot-gun percussion work. The second movement’s energy articulates some brighter colours and incorporates a characteristically gorgeous tune in the strings, of a sort that was to become (if it hadn’t already) a hallmark of Rachmaninov’s orchestral writing. Atherton and the strings of BBC NOW certainly revelled in this, swoops and glissandi above harmonic structures surely derived from the music of the Orthodox Church. Such debts are also evident in a chorale-like theme near the close of the movement, again very beautifully shaped in this performance. In the third movement, a lovely and movingly poignant adagio of regret and loss, orchestra and conductor were heard at their finest, Lesley Hadfield’s contribution as first violin being particularly lovely. This movement, surely, is the keystone of the work’s arch and with, for example, the clarinet’s memories of the materials from the first movement it does something (beyond its own beauty) to knit the work together. This is true too, of the movement’s development towards a more affirmative spirit, which was nicely articulated, making clear the role such a development plays in preparing the way for the final movement. The energy and vitality of the orchestral playing in the first subject was properly exciting, the march-like passage for woodwinds and lower strings adding an attractively ambiguous note to proceedings, with its edge of the ominous, before the second subject, another very grand theme in the strings sweeps all before it, underpinned by triplets in the brass and wind. Here again the performance was impressive, Atherton and the orchestral sections achieving a pleasing degree of clarity and transparency, for all the huge body of sound.

If I had some reservations about the central panel of this triptych of Russian compositions (and these were reservations about the mode of interpretation) these did not detract from my enjoyment of a programme which offered, in miniature, a lesson in the continuity and development of that Russian musical tradition which was to some considerable degree ‘fathered’ by Glinka.

Glyn Pursglove

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