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Russian Masters - Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Liadov: Baiba Skride (Violin) City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/ with Andris Nelsons (Conductor) Symphony Hall, Birmingham 6.2. 2010 (GR)  

Musical monuments from two of Russia’s greatest composers justified this programme’s title of Russian Masters; Stravinsky and Shostakovich are honorary members of that collection. Both had distinct attitudes to formalism, although at times operating from different sides of the pond. Stravinsky’s The Firebird and Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No 1 in A Minor made significant contributions to twentieth century music and their works prompted a distinctly Russian experience to the evening’s entertainment from the CBSO in the Birmingham Symphony Hall. However there were other masters on view hailing from a much smaller nation state, neighbouring Latvia, in the shape of conductor Andris Nelsons and violinist Baiba Skride.

The concert began with Liadov (who but for idleness might have been our third Russian master) and his fairy tale for orchestra, Kikimora; Nelsons and the CBSO served up a tasty seven-minute hors d’oeuvre. This Slave mythological spirit is excellent fodder from which to concoct a tone poem – a tormentor of unbaptized children. The music behind the malicious character of Kikimora evoked some magical sounds: the sinister opening growl of the lower strings; the persistent, catchy but creepy tread of the cor anglais cat; the tinkling rocking cradle of the celeste. The threat of Kikimora duly materialised as she showed her claws, paraded with assorted whistles and whines. Yet the piece was far from depressing, reminding me at times of Strauss and his merry pranks of another folk legend.

What’s your favourite violin concerto? Mine changes with alarming frequency. Many however remain loyal to a particular work and Shostakovich’s 1st attracts considerable support. This rendition from Baiba Skride, Nelsons and the CBSO was ravishing in every sense. Dedicated to David Oistrakh, it impressed upon him at the time ‘absolute symphonic thinking’. In this performance on Feb 6th 2010, the four movements were indeed inextricably bound together. I used to think the opening Nocturne went on a bit, but such was the intensity of Skride’s soliloquy that the feeling of restless contemplation she created wasn’t a bar too long.

The frenzy of the second movement enabled Skride to show off her Stadivarius ‘Wilhelmj’ violin to maximum advantage. This Scherzo featured the autobiographical motif (D/Eb/C/B or D/S/C/H in German notation – D Schostakowitsch) indicative of the composer’s constant struggle against the state. At times the solo instrument was pitted against full force of Nelsons and the CBSO; Skride was equal to the task. Her aggressive hacking at the discordant strains was balanced by the clarity and precision of her top notes. Possibly a sardonic portrait of Andrei Zhdanov (one perpetrator of Stalin’s purges) the turmoil he generated within the Russian artistic intelligentsia came through. No less an impact was engendered by the suddenness of the movement’s close – no regime lasts forever.

A fanfare set the tone of the Passacaglia. The previous angry voices became ones of remorse and lament as the lyrical melodies from Skride produced the most moving music of the night for me. This section of the work recognized the dead of the Patriotic War, a mood summed up in two lines of the poet Anna Akhmatova, translated as ‘How the Russian earth loves the taste of blood’. Again Nelsons found the optimum balance between solo violin and orchestral crescendos. The delicacy of Skride’s playing spilled over into the beginning of the cadenza. But this is and was no ordinary cadenza as the 2001 winner of the Queen Elizabeth Competition demonstratively showed; the audience became transfixed by her technical ability and stamina. After a brief respite her fireworks sparkled again in the closing Burlesque, a virtuosic display.

The second half was devoted to Stravinsky’s The Firebird, the 1910 ballet version. Becoming a trademark piece for Nelsons and the CBSO, this charismatic conductor began with one of his little chats (albeit more of a commercial this time) since this well-integrated combination are about to take the work on tour to Germany. He also promised another tour, this time a guided one around the music with Stephen Johnson, at home here Birmingham on 25th March. If this was, as he said, in any way a dress rehearsal, then both conductor and players are already word-perfect.

As the programme said, concert performances of the 44 min ballet are quite rare and having experienced the 1910 version commissioned by Diaghilev in all its splendour, colour and chromatic harmony, future renditions of Stravinsky’s subsequent Firebird suites may seem a little pale. The music that bridged the gap between romantic and modern did so much for the early ballet scene and on this evidence deserves greater exposure. Ballet is often helped by a fascinating story, and this one of the handsome Prince Ivan Tsarevich, the Princess of Unearthly Beauty, the demonic Kashchei and a magical bird of flaming gold, ranks with the best. The various sections of the narrative were explicitly spelt out by the Symphony Hall surtitles and atmospherically portrayed in this shimmering interpretation by Nelsons and the CBSO. The piece must be a favourite among players since all principals and sections are fully involved, a point Nelsons acknowledged during the enthusiastic applause from another packed house. But of course so much of the credit deservedly went Nelsons himself and when the violins were requested to take a second bow, they stayed on their seats, allowing him to accept the plaudits. Are the halcyon days of Sir Simon Rattle about to return? Dress rehearsal? How could they improve on this?

Geoff Read

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