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Swansea Festival of the Arts (5) - Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns: Guy Johnston (cello), St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra / Alexander Dmitriev, Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 17.10.09 (NR)

: Suite, Sleeping Beauty

Saint-Saëns: Cello Concerto

Tchaikovsky: Symphony no. 6, ‘Pathétique’

You could tell from the opening bars of the Sleeping Beauty suite that this was going to be Tchaikovsky without syrup; the St Petersburg orchestral sound had an austerity, even a harshness not usually suggested in this work. The famous waltz was graceful without ever taking rhythmic liberties: metronomically precise rather than suavely affecting. In Dmitriev’s hands the music seemed to probe the darker and crueller elements in the folk tale it was dramatising; it was certainly not ‘very nice’, as the Tsar is supposed to have said after the first performance.

Food for thought there, and much more in the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto, played by Guy Johnston, who famously broke a string while winning the Young Musician of the Year final some years back. No such problems this time. He had a complete and irresistible command of this demanding, sinuous one-movement work, the virtuosity and the lyricism perfectly in balance. There were some beautifully expressive arches of sound, especially in the charming carol-like allegretto section. The orchestra, reduced to half-strength for this piece, played tactfully, a careful, measured reading – it was the only time in the whole evening that Dmitriev used a score – almost as if there were still something slightly foreign to them in the blood of this music which called for respect but not quite for relaxation.

With the Pathétique Symphony, though, they were back on home ground, steeped in tradition, totally masterful. Again there was that edge to the sound, the mighty first-movement themes pure statements of intent. Nothing was caressed or lingered over. Bob Briggs reviewed the recent Cadogan Hall performance, and I felt much as he did about the energy and drive, but whereas he heard desperation in the thundering third-movement march, I felt that the utterly four-square rhythmic control and the relentless hammer-blows were also bringing into the music a kind of manic, glittering gaiety. There was a thrillingly strident force in the brass playing, the trumpeters in particular finding colours few other orchestras could manage. It was so breathtaking that the audience had to applaud at the end of the movement simply to clear some emotional space to deal with the final adagio. That space was certainly needed; the long, slow-fading final notes in the very depths of the double-basses sounding more than I’ve ever heard them like a massive male choir at a Russian funeral. Conductor and orchestra were so attuned to each other and to where they wanted to take themselves that they barely had to exchange a glance, and at the end Dmitriev and his first violinist contented themselves with the brief, stoical handshake of those who know they have done justice to what had faced them.

Neil Reeve

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