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Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Prokofiev: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Steven Osborne (piano)  Alexander Vedernikov (conductor), Cheltenham Town Hall, 28.5.2010 (RJ)

Conductor Alexander Vedernikov is credited with having revived the artistic fortunes of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, so expectations were high for this concert of Russian music. Where better to begin than with Rimsky-Korsakov who pioneered the distinctive Russian style of classical music drawing on his country's rich folk heritage. His Russian Easter Festival Overture, which opened the concert, is a good example of this and uses liturgical themes from the Obilkhov, a printed collection of the most important and most frequently used canticles of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Its character bore little resemblance to Western European religious music, but had a sensuous, almost Oriental quality, with sinuous solo passages for violin and flute, interesting harp and percussion sounds and plenty of prominence given to the trombones. The long, slow introduction, inspired by Isaiah's prophesy about the resurrection of the Messiah, was contemplative, yet interpersed with of magical sounds and culminated in a hymn which was colourful yet profound. The pace quickened and for the first time the full orchestra made its presence felt in a lively synchopated theme which expressed the exuberance of the Easter celebrations. Eventually the mood of gaiety was overtaken by a calm melody based on the Russian Easter chant Christ is risen, but in the climax the merriment burst out again.

Rimsky-Korsakov's influence was evident in the music of the two other composers in the concert, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Normally, one expects Shostakovich to be doom-laden and full of grim irony, but his Second Piano Concerto is in a much lighter vein. Written for his son Maxim, it is full of good humour and starts off with a jaunty bassoon passage before the percussive piano takes over.The Scottish pianist, Steven Osborne, seemed in his element as he pounded away on the keyboard with considerable vigour with the enthusiastic participation of the orchestra. The slow movement, in which the piano is supported by the strings and solo horn, was much gentler and flowing and brought the Romanticism found in Rachmaninov's concertos to mind. The rollicking finale with its rippling scales and arpeggios was full of fun. It is said that Shostakovich included some piano exercises in the music in order to make them more palatable to his son. This was an brilliant, fast-paced performance by Steven Osborne, whose enthusiasm was mirrored in the playing of the CBSO.

Prokofiev's Symphony No 6 in E flat minor is a truly monumental work. While his Fifth Symphony expresses relief that the Second World War is over, its successor serves as a memorial for the millions of Russians who had died during the war years. It may also reflect his bitter disappointment that conditions Russia itself had not changed for the better under Stalin since the cessation of the conflict..

The introduction to the first movement was dark, tense and subdued with themes that drift in and out as if contemplating the ruined landscapes of the war. The music then became more passionate and puncuated with dissonant sounds on the brass before subsiding into a mood of contemplation. In the richly chromatic slow movement Verdinov maintained the solemnity and anguish of the first movement It is essentially an elegy to the war dead with a tremendous outpouring of sorrow ending on a mood of pure nostalgia. The final movement helped to alleviate the sombre tone of the preceding music, and was almost scherzo-like in places The cheerful syncopation suggested the composer was trying to draw a veil over the past, although undercurrents of grief came to the surface now and then.

Prokofiev's final symphony is a towering achievement which deserves to be heard more often in this country. Vedernikov managed to inspire the CBSO to play with vigour and commitment to produce a performance which was utterly overwhelming in its impact.

Roger Jones

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