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USA v Russia - Bernstein, Rachmaninov, John Adams and Borodin: Simon Callaghan (piano). London Phoenix Orchestra, Levon Parikian, St John's, Smith Squarre, London, 30.3.2011 (BBr)


Bernstein: Three Dance Episodes from On the Town (1944, arranged 1949)
Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, op.43 (1934)
John Adams:
The Chairman Dances (1985)
Borodin: Symphony No.2 in B minor (1869/1877)

Tonight, the Eagle and the Bear met in serious musical combat and both factions showed typical examples of their best work, but the lines of demarcation were blurred by the fact that Rachmaninov had a foot firmly placed in both camps. However, whatever was available it was a closely placed contest.

Bernstein's Dance Episodes from On the Town were given a splendid performance, racey and brilliant, the whole orchestra sounding like a full blown big band; the lazy blues of the middle piece was graced with the plaintive trumpet of Elle Lovegrove. Simon Callaghan joined the orchestra for a fine performance of what is probably Rachmaninov's best work - the Paganini Rhapsody. Soloist and conductor had a strong view of the work and brought out the symphonic nature of the structure of the music. Callaghan played with all the bravura necessary for the work and the whole grew logically and obviously, no one part standing out but rather being a part of the whole, so the famous Eighteenth variation, by being withheld, felt perfectly at home within the scheme of things. As an encore, Callaghan gave a delicately paced performance of one of the Three Mazurkas from Chopin's opus 63.

John Adams's The Chairman Dances was given in a straightforward way, the rather bluff approach heightening the humour of the music and throwing the lyrical episode into bright relief. The ending, where the music slowly disintegrates into percussion noise, was admirably handled.

Quite why we hear Borodin's Second Symphony so seldom - actually, to be honest, scarcely at all - in concert is a mystery to me for it has everything from high drama, in the first movement, to the spirit of the fair in the finale - it is no surprise that those musical grave robbers Robert Wright and George Forrest took these movements for two of the numbers in the musical Kismet. At times we're in the Steppes of Central Asia, then, with a deft flick of the compositional wrist, we're in a Tchaikovsky ballet. Most interesting of all, in view of tonight's USA/Russia juxtaposition, is that in the slow movement there is a strong feel of the melodic contours of Dmitri Tiomkin, a Glazunov pupil, who moved to Hollywood and wrote, perhaps, the most defining American anthems, in the title songs for Fred Zinnemann's High Noon and the 1960s TV series Rawhide. Parikian held the music back, which aided the sound, for the scoring is very thick - too much so, at times, and it needs a little help. The first movement was fiery and dramatic, the second light and almost balletic, the third came from an old and fabled time, and the final was every inch a real Bazaar of the Caravans.

With very committed performances, insightful interpretations and intelligent programming this was a most memorable evening. And as for USA v Russia, the winners were the members of the audience, who obviously enjoyed every minute of the show.

Bob Briggs

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