Japan PO. Inkinen, Lill (Usher Hall 14 April ‘19)

“If the orchestra had been playing this piece as an exam they would have got 100%.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

 

A decade ago my wife treated me to a weekend in Vienna, and thoughtfully procured tickets for the Sunday morning concert at the Musikverein.  I remember musicians of the highest calibre drawn from the Vienna Philharmonic playing easy on the ear classics supremely well, and afterwards watching the respectable citizens of that city go off to the Imperial Hotel for lunch.  It could have been straight out of Luis Bunuel’s 1972 classic Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie.

 

Edinburgh offers the same kind of thing but with the concert in the afternoon, and with musicians sourced from all over the world.  The combination of well-known works played by orchestras from exotic places, the audience having lunched well, provides an attractive draw, although I am afraid post prandial snoring was evident in one or two places, and the informal dress code disgraced the locals compared to the Viennese, or the smartly turned out Japanese cohort present.

 

In addition to providing two works of easy familiarity, Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto and Sibelius’s Second Symphony, to their great credit and wisdom the band presented two accessible lesser known works, Rautavaara’s In the Beginning (referencing conductor Petari Inkinen’s Finnish nationality) and Takemitsu’s Requiem for Strings, for the Japanese.  Both works held their own in terms of seriousness, if not length, compared to the masterpieces.

 

Einojuhani Rautavaara’s In the Beginning, written as recently as 2015, his final work before his death in 2016, was very much in the Finnish idiom, plenty of close harmony and skilful orchestration of brass.  Enjoyable, not too austere, it showcased the orchestra’s talent across the entire instrumental bandwith in just seven minutes; a strong beginning.

 

Just as I am puzzled by the number of recordings available of well-known works so I find it hard to write something new about them when often performed.  All one can really write about is the interpretation.  It is perhaps helpful that I heard Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 just a month ago in the same hall with young Turkish pianist Can Cakmur with the RSNO.  The 21 year old Turk found new life in the piece and tore the opening phrases off the piano in the opening Allegro con brio, and gently coaxed the scales in the Largo.  The 75 year old Lill was more measured, and played an exemplary, much more classic interpretation that I expect hadn’t changed much in fifty years.  It found great favour amongst the many septua/octogenarians present, and was immaculate, considered, uber competent, but as if classical musical interpretation had stood still since the great recordings of the sixties and seventies under the baton of the likes of von Karajan and Klemperer.

 

Toru Takemitsu’s Requiem for Strings (1975) was a piece one could easily have mistaken for being of Western provenance, (the composer having been influenced by Western music for most of his life) and while I cannot agree with the comparison some make with Barber’s Adagio for Strings , the piece in my view being more reminiscent of Michael Tippett, it was a restful, well orchestrated example of the post war idiom, written but ten years after Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings.  Accessible, interesting and drawing one in, it faded into a beautiful ethereal ending.  The orchestra’s playing of their home piece was superb.

 

What to say of the finale, Sibelius’s Symphony No 2 in D minor, other than it is a glorious work and I don’t care how many times I listen to it?  The discipline, technique and intensely classical style of the orchestra ensured that we got a rendition that was free from schmaltz and true to the composer’s intentions.  It was a masterly performance, under the now obviously very talented baton of compatriot Finn Intiken, who drew everything out of the score from double bass, percussion and tubas to soaring strings, blaring brass and exquisite woodwind, notably the oboist.  If the orchestra had been playing this piece as an exam they would have got 100%.

 

It is a tribute to the Japan Philharmonic’s stamina that after this bravura rendition we were treated to seven minutes of peaceful wind down therapy with a beautifully played seven minutes of Sibelius’s Valse Triste as an encore. 

 

 

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 14 April)

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NYOS: Chan, Osborne (Usher Hall: 12 April ’19)

Image result for National Youth Orchestra of Scotland 

“I have never heard Pictures played so well.  Ever.  By anyone.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

 

There is much talk in educational, local political and musical circles about youth and classical music today and where it is going.  I have a slightly different take to those who wish instrument teaching to be free for all, who I think miss the point.  Musical appreciation for all certainly at the infant and possibly early primary stages, but nothing is more likely to put someone off its joys than to learn something because they have to rather than because they want to.  Instrumental technique requires commitment, dedication and practice.  Money that is freely spent on other leisure pursuits can usually be redirected if wanted.

 

Serious youth music is channelled by the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland, which is not so much an orchestra as a movement, comprising three orchestras and two jazz combos, with illustrious patrons such Sir James MacMillan and Nicola Benedetti.

 

It is greatly to the RSNO’s credit that they devote such commitment to youth music, the more so because they integrated the orchestra’s 40th season into their own along with the creation of a new partnership.   The young people had the privilege on the night of being under the baton of the RSNO’s Principal Guest Conductor, Elim Chan, and of accompanying the uber talented Steven Osborne in Rach3.

 

As the players came on stage and warmed up full of brio I knew we were going to be in for a fun evening, even if fuelled on enthusiasm alone.  I was dismayed that the house was only half to three quarters full, but of course every conceivable parent, grandparent and sibling was there.  Often youth orchestras are capable of the very highest standard of delivery.  We would see.

 

Accompanying a soloist requires a different type of playing than when it is an entirely orchestral piece, the dynamics are more accentuated, you have to play quieter than you would wish a lot of the time.  The NYOS clearly understood this under the accessible and supportive conducting of Elim Chan, but perhaps they hadn’t reckoned with the bravura playing of Steven Osborne in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3 In D minor, Op. 30To my utter astonishment, notwithstanding what I have said about Chan’s supportive style, she took the work really fast.  The tempo for the first movement is Allegro ma non tanto.  Clearly Chan forgot or chose to ignore the non tanto.  Boy!, it was fast, and Osborn played both fast and loud.  Very loud, it was an absolute virtuoso performance, but this meant the orchestra/soloist balance was often wrong with the orchestra playing too quietly apart from some confident solo instrumental passages.  As everybody settled in after the mammoth first movement the strings came into their own in the Intermezzo: Adagio with some exceptional pizzicato from the double basses (one of their proud parents was right in front of me and gladly pointed him out).  In the final movement Alla breve everyone had a good time as they brought this monumental, demanding work to a glorious conclusion.  Osborne rose from the piano stool, modestly took no bow alone and immediately referenced the orchestra.  He then treated us to something “quieter and slower”, one of Rachmaninov’s glorious preludes.

 

It transpired, after the interval, that this would be a “concert of two halves”, my slight reservations about some of the playing in Part One swept aside as the band was given their head in a full on performing, rather than accompanying role.  First up was Andrea Tarrodi’s (b. 1981) short orchestral piece Liguria, inspired by the composer’s 2011 visit to six of its small villages.  Dramatic from start to finish it showed off the orchestra’s credentials, enjoyable to listen to in the modern idiom, if somewhat derivative.  The waves depicting Onde reminded me of Debussy’s La Mer.

 

The final work in the programme was Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an ExhibitionThis is a work guaranteed to bring the house down, and what impressed me was the joy, yet discipline and sheer musical accomplishment that the young orchestra brought to it.  Not a hint of vulgarity, clear, taut delivery, and the full gamut of strings, wind, brass (including two bass tubas), percussion (including tubular bells and two harps) giving us the full big orchestra experience.  I slept on this before finally convincing myself of the veracity of the happy note that I wrote before leaving the auditorium:  “I have never heard Pictures played so well.  Ever.  By anyone.”  Well done NYOS, you are a testimony for youth music.

 

 

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 12 April)

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SCO: Swensen, Lewis (Usher Hall: 14 Mar.’19)

“Elegiac, more like a tone poem, with the baton-less Swensen using his hands more like a magician than conductor”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

 

Thursday’s Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s gig played to a larger and more diverse audience than at their normal Queen’s Hall venue, and the audience showed their appreciation with a near full house, enthusiastic applause, restraint with seasonal agues such as coughing (your beleaguered writer included!) and respectful post performance silences following the conductor’s upraised baton at the end of the quieter pieces.  It was a joy to be among the cognoscenti.

 

The programme was a contrast of early and late Romantic works, with composition dates ranging from 1787 to 1924. Curiously, three of the works comprised several years in their gestation, and the remaining Coriolan Overture was written for no apparent purpose at all other than composition for the sake of it (not that there is anything wrong with that, but it is more of a 20th rather than 19th century idea, in a past age of mostly commissioned music). Beethoven spent 11 years finalising his Concerto No 2 in B flat, Op 19 (which was in fact his first concerto), and Sibelius the best part of a decade on his last two symphonies.  That is, I have calculated, about 3 minutes music per year in the case of the latter, one minute in the case of the Beethoven.  I guess that they had one or two other things to attend to as well?  Even George R R Martin is doing better than that with the concluding ‘Game of Thrones’ book.

 

Was the deliberation in terms of timescale worth it? In the case of the Beethoven I would say yes, for Sibelius, I would be less sure.

 

Conductor Joseph Swensen bounded on to the podium to start off the proceedings with Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, Op 62.  An amiable great big bear of a man, heavily bearded, of mixed Japanese and Norwegian heritage, he kicked off the playing without ado and drove us through ten minutes of classical gothic music without reference to a score.  The orchestra responded well to his enthusiastic conducting (no baton) and we experienced a fluent, well played opener that lifted our spirits.

 

Next up the wonderfully adept Paul Lewis took us through the Beethoven Piano Concerto no 2.  Only last week Can Cakmur gave us a spellbinding interpretation of the third with the RSNO in the very same hall.  The second was a completely different work, of almost a different world, mature Mozart rather than Beethoven at the height of his powers, eleven years separating their composition. To compare them would be comparing chalk with cheese. Lewis played with consummate ease and brought everything out of the work that he should have.  After the long, tautly played orchestral opening Lewis entered with bright, clear tone, good intonation and phrasing.  The well known third movement Rondo: Molto Allegro was a delightful, reassuring romp.  Enthusiastic applause but alas no encore, the more surprising in view of the relatively short duration of the programme.  Never mind, mustn’t be greedy.

 

Two Sibelius symphonies filled the second half of the programme, No 6 in D minor, Op 104 (1923) and No 7 in C, Op 105 (1924).  This was the programme feature of the evening, and one wondered what our charming rather enigmatic conductor, with his Scandinavian roots, would make of these relatively unknown works compared to the over popular 2nd and 5th symphonies

 

The 6th is constructed in conventional four movement style and lasts approximately 25 minutes.  Too much, in my opinion, has been made of the fact that Sibelius was studying Palestrina when he wrote it.  More telling, I suspect, was that it was rather overshadowed by the fifth symphony being written at the time.  Sibelius himself said that it reminded him of snow falling.  A sublime, ethereal string orchestra opening followed by woodwind calling.  Elegiac, more like a tone poem, with the baton-less Swensen using his hands more like a magician than conductor.  The second movement built up the tension and the third was a return to the more plaintive; the final Allegro Molto a return to the brass we know so well.  I wanted to rush home and listen to it again and again.  A privilege to hear this “Cinderella” of Sibelius symphonies being done by so rightly by a deeply sensitive conductor and orchestra.

 

Finally to the final Sibelius symphony, No 7.  A single movement work of a little under 25 minutes, more of a tone poem and originally entitled Fantasia Symphonica No 1, Robert Layton has described it as “completely original in form, subtle in its handling of tempi, individual in its treatment of key and wholly organic in growth”.  Moreover ‘New Grove’ describes it as “Sibelius’s most remarkable symphonic achievement”.   Hmm.  It does grow and deliberately lacks the shape of a symphony. I suppose one should regard it as a musical development, even if one does not always know where it is going.  A string opening very much in the tragic genre, with the brass making its presence felt and gradually taking over.  Bruckner does brass with forcefulness and aggression, Wagner with foreboding, but Sibelius does brass with soul!  The work, much favoured by many, made for an intriguing essay in related sounds and passages conjuring up imaginings of mystical Finnish folklore.

 

 

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Charles Stokes(Seen 14 March)

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RSNO: Watanabe, Cakmur (Usher Hall: 8 Mar.’19)

“The Wheel of Fortune” from the original manuscript of the Carmina Burana , c.1230

“This is a wonderful time to be a concert goer in Edinburgh”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

There are considerable advantages to living in a city with such an enlightened and broad church approach to the performing arts.  And being – in global terms – for music a second city compared to, say, Berlin, New York, London or San Francisco, we tend to see up and coming artists before they get the bookings on the true world stage.  We thus look into the future.  And the future is bright.

 

Can you recognise the names in the headline?  I doubt it.  Kensho Watanabe hit the big time two years ago when, just appointed Assistant Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra aged 29, he stood in at the last minute for his mentor Yannick Nezet-Seguin to make his critically acclaimed subscription concert debut with the Philadelphia and pianist Daniil Trifanov.  On his debut with the RSNO on Thursday he showed masterly control and grasp of the complexities involved in conducting a major full length piano concerto, and an hour long Choral and Orchestral work.  One had complete confidence in him.

 

And Can Cakmur?  A Turkish pianist who won the 2017 Scottish International Piano Competition, 22 years old, and about to debut with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra.  We shall be seeing and hearing a great deal more from this highly educated, personable young man.

 

So I suspect the draw, with all due respect to the principals, was the programme: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor Op 37, and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. A mixture, perhaps, of the sacred and profane. A full house, bar the usual few leg-numbing seats in the gods.

 

It resonated with me personally that the Beethoven was being performed fifty years after Radu Lupu’s astonishing and winning performance in the final of the Leeds International Piano Competition. In particular, his rendering of the second movement Largo demonstrated thoughtful restraint and tenderness and left me mesmerised.  Then we had a successor, twenty years on, to the other legendary Romanian pianist , Dinu Lipatti.  And now a Turk interprets the grand man, and an exhilarating interpretation it was.  After the lengthy orchestral introduction, brass and wind a little out of balance with the strings to start with, but soon settling down, Cakmur almost threw the opening scales off the piano in a brave, individualistic but convincing interpretation that proves the international piano competition world is not just throwing out sterile, technically competent clones.  This young man showed a grasp of the work way beyond his years.  Rightly pausing so the unfortunate plethora of uncontrolled audience coughing and sputtering finished, Cakmur created a sense of calm before the opening solo chords of the second movement Largo.  The pianist’s sensitivity of playing and interpretation pleased this disciple of Radu Lupu, taking one to a level of transcendence that almost, but not quite, extinguished the insensitive uncontrolled coughing of the audience, who should not have attended in those circumstances, and should learn to cover their mouth with a handkerchief.  If only the management could advise this at the beginning of the programme when they talk about mobile phones.

 

Without a break we rushed into the final movement Rondo: Allegro.  Could have been Presto.  Uplifting, joyous, fun.

 

Cakmur introduced his encore that was a melange of Liszt and Schumann overlaid by Bach.  Ingenious.  What stamina these professionals have, to play like that after thirty minutes of intense keyboard bashing!

 

There was much to enjoy in the second set’s Carmina Burana, and I always get more out of listening to works that I have performed, such as this, with the mighty Beckenham Chorale.  I counted at least 100 voices in the RSNO chorus who gave a very good account of themselves, a full on O Fortuna to open the proceedings, clear diction of the Latin text, great rhythmical singing in the jazz like Veni, Veni, Venias, glorious unrestrained joy in the Blanziflor et Helena.  The children’s choir performed clearly without words or music, showed exemplary discipline, and have clearly been very well trained.  Soloists Fflur Wyn, Adrian Dwyer and Stephen Gadd contributed well, if sparsely, giving in particular amusing renditions of a swan not enjoying about to be eaten and a drunken abbot.

 

This is a wonderful time to be a concert goer in Edinburgh.

 

 

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 8 March)

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RSNO, Sondergard, Benedetti. (Usher Hall: 8 Feb.’19)

Image: wyntonmarsalis.org

“…the RSNO, which since their return from China in January has been playing at world class standard. “

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

I have commended the RSNO on the creativity and intelligence of their programme planning since I started writing about them some three years ago, and on Friday there was a fine example of this.  For sure, Nicola Benedetti, the forces sweetheart of the Central Belt, will always fill the hall, and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is ever popular, but Thomas Ades and Wynton Marsalis?  Now that was a risk, but, boy, did it pay off.

 

Effectively this was Jazz Night at the Usher Hall, and, strangely enough it was the Concerto in D minor for Violin and Orchestra by Wynton Marsalis that had the strongest classical nuances, not the Ades.

 

Powder Her Face by Thomas Ades was his first opera, based on a sex scandal involving the then Duchess of Argyll, and was a cut down work comprising just four singers and an ensemble of three clarinets, a brass trio and a string quintet with piano, harp, accordion and percussion.  Ades’ Dances, written later but for that same opera, is what we heard and was an eleven-minute full on full orchestra shebang which certainly expressed the Duchess’s hedonistic lifestyle.  To say it was played with wild abandon would be to criticise the orchestra.  It was played with controlled abandon.  But abandon there certainly was, a gorgeous, unrestrained, schmaltzy piece bordering on the burlesque.

 

More familiar was A Symphonic Picture of Porgy and Bess, a 23-minute composite of our favourite songs orchestrated by Fritz Reiner for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1943.  The work held together with remarkable integrity and was a joy to listen to.  Again, the RSNO didn’t hold back and we were treated to some rich, unrestrained playing in the jazz rather than classical orchestral tradition, showing the orchestra’s versatility under the guiding arm of Sondergard’s enlightened baton.

 

Without doubt the draw of the evening was the newly honoured Nicola Benedetti (is she the youngest CBE in the country?) playing the Scottish premiere of the Concerto in D minor for Violin and Orchestra by Wynton Marsalis, especially written for herIntroduced by Sondergard as a work as long as a symphony (50 minutes) it never palled.  I would describe the opening movement, Rhapsody, as a beautiful lyric piece yet in the jazz idiom, albeit classically constructed.  The second, Rondo Burlesque, was all over the place but a fun listen.  During the third movement, Blues, Benedetti showed us some beautiful solo playing with the support of the string section in some unusual and effective pizzicato.  Come the finale, Hootenanny, notwithstanding the Scottish title, I felt we were more likely in a barn dance, it was terrific, exciting, fun and to cap it all Benedetti concluded the piece by walking off the stage still playing the final refrain.

 

This is the third consecutive review that I have written in the past fortnight that has received our highest accolade, five stars, which shows the incredibly high standard of music available currently in Edinburgh. Two of these go to the RSNO, which since their return from China in January has been playing at world class standard.  Rather than give an encore Benedetti concluded the evening by thanking the generosity of the RSNO in giving free tickets to a number of Midlothian young musicians who had been taking a workshop that afternoon with the orchestra; obliquely referring to the current threat to axe instrumental tuition in Midlothian for schoolchildren below S4.  If the seniors in the audience want their children and grandchildren to continue to listen to home grown music of this quality, the answer lies in their pockets, though of course Nicola was too nice to say this.  But we knew what she meant.

 

 

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 8 February)

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RSNO, Sondergard. Mahler, Bruckner (Usher Hall: 1 Feb.’19)

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)

“… an object lesson in how to play Bruckner, and a testimony on a cold winter’s night to the glory that is music played live.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

It was a wretchedly cold Friday night in Edinburgh, and the rugby was on the telly.  Moreover the programme was Bruckner and Mahler, absolutely my favourite, but not everyone’s cup of tea.  Yet if the members of the RSNO could bus or drive in from Glasgow on a night such as this, so could I shuffle across Bruntsfield Links to a near capacity house.  Testimony to the RSNO, for sure, and we were amply rewarded by some fine playing.

 

Putting Bruckner and Mahler together on a programme is not untypical, and of course only one work can be a full symphony or the concert would go on too long.  Nonetheless I was puzzled why relatively early Bruckner (around 1880) and late Mahler (written c1910) should be conjoined.  The answer was found in the playing of Mahler’s Adagio from the unfinished Tenth Symphony, typically valedictory; and of  Bruckner’s Symphony No 4 (The Romantic), triumphant and life affirming.

 

The key point I want to put across in this review is the sheer quality of the orchestra’s playing on the night, and the incredible discipline of the baton of Thomas Sondergard that stopped the tendency of Bruckner symphonies to ‘wander’ or lose their way. The Bruckner can sometimes sound muddy with the high proportion of brass, but we experienced none of that, but just utter clarity.

 

Occasionally Sondergard addresses the audience at the beginning of a concert and I wondered if he was going to tonight, especially as it was quite a short bill with just 1 hour 25 minutes of music.  He chose not to, and was right, as the Mahler is a sombre piece and a stand alone work in itself.  I was astonished at how the orchestra immediately got into the piece – a desperately exposed violin and horn introduction played assuredly that swept us away into a rewarding exposition with some of the most complex Mahlerian harmonies that I have heard.  This included moments of real poignancy that at one stage found your reviewer wiping his eyes!

 

We returned after the interval to hear the Bruckner.  This was a taut, disciplined and expertly played piece that kept us on the edge of our seats for the entire 62 minutes.  All sections excelled themselves but my personal gold medal would go to the cellos – who were not asked to take a bow, probably because of the difficulty of all eight of them getting up at the same time with their cumbersome instruments.  Time and time again Sondergard’s stern but helpful baton stopped us losing the tempo or phrasing, so that we felt, and the orchestra sounded, as fresh at the end as at the beginning.  This was an object lesson in how to play Bruckner, and a testimony on a cold winter’s night to the glory that is music played live.

 

A footnote to compliment the audience on this cold and coldy night.  Not a single cough or splutter during the music and a patient, eternal, wait after the Mahler for the conductor to drop his baton. After the Bruckner we could not contain ourselves and the applause immediately followed the concluding note, along with several shouts of “Bravo”.  Quite rightly so.

 

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 2 February)

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St Petersburg Philharmonic, Sinaisky; Kempf, Devin. (Usher Hall: 27 Jan.’19)

At the Museum of the Defense and Siege of Leningrad.
Photo credit: TASS/Yury Belinsky

“This orchestra has soul”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars Outstanding

It became very clear to me on a visit to St Petersburg in February last year ( … temperature minus 20C) that the St Petersburg Philharmonic (which begat the Petrograd Philharmonic, which begat the Leningrad Philharmonic, which begat the St Petersburg Philharmonic for the second time), Russia’s oldest orchestra, is not just an orchestra or a magnificent symbol of Russian culture, but an entity that goes to the very soul of the St Petersburgers themselves.  For in the Great Patriotic War (World War Two to you and me) the citizens of this great city were under siege for 872 days and reduced at one stage to eating cardboard and glue – after the rats ran out.  Tannoys were fixed around the city to relay the playing of the orchestra to maintain morale, usually Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony (‘The Leningrad’).  The orchestra were given extra rations to give them the strength to play.  Some died at their desks.  The siege ended on 27th January 1944, 75 years to the day of this concert.

I doubt if any playing in the orchestra on Sunday were alive then, but of course their parents would have been, and they would have known.  This orchestra has soul.

There is also a poignant connection between Eastern Scotland and Western Russia, as anyone who has read Eugenie Fraser’s The House by the Dvina knows, although this was principally trade between Dundee and Archangel.  However, there was terrific snob value in nineteenth century aristocratic St Petersburg houses in having an Edinburgh Nanny, just read Harvey Pitcher’s When Miss Emmie was in Russia.

So it was touching that the St Petersburg Philharmonic chose to start their UK tour in Edinburgh, and we got a full on performance.  This was no warm up venue.

The Usher Hall’s programme of Sunday Classics featuring international orchestras is an unashamed and thoroughly enjoyable crowd pleaser. The programmes are highly accessible if not populist.  Why not? The place was packed.  Nobody plays like a Russian orchestra, and nobody plays Russian music like a Russian orchestra, and our first item was the biggest lollipop of them all, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Op. 18It was played superbly, with not the slightest hint of schmaltz or vulgarity.  Freddy Kempf set the tone from the beginning by making every one of the eight bell like introductory chords sound different.  His was a very intelligent, totally clear interpretation that let the music speak for itself.  The orchestra’s tone was rich and warm, conductor Vassily Sinaisky kept soloist and band in balance, keeping the magnificent brass in check and letting the strings soar, with ample support from woodwind and percussion.  This was a thoroughly rehearsed yet utterly fresh and committed rendition of a well known work that did not tire through familiarity, a lesson to orchestras everywhere.

The ultra cool Freddy Kempf treated us to a substantive jazz encore.  The music writer always wants to know what the encore is, but even when announced can rarely hear.  Anyway, Freddy said that “It was written by a Russian Ukrainian whom you won’t have heard of”.

To my surprise the second part of the programmes was not a Russian composer but Mahler, albeit the very accessible 4th Symphony.  The orchestra went into the opening without catching its breath, beautiful light flute and string phrasing, a fast rhythm quickly developed with a definite sense of swing.  Immediately we had the confidence that we would be in for a fine performance, and we were.  The horns came in strong but beautifully measured, the four flutes, no less, pleasingly fluent and inducing a sense almost of easy listening.  Knowing of Mahler’s love of scoring for banks of the same instrument (he has been known to write for eight horns) I was impressed to see and hear no less than ten double basses playing pizzicato in the third movement Ruhevoll (Restful). An extraordinary experience.

Come the final movement Sehr behaglich (at ease) soprano Anna Devin emerged from where she had been patiently sitting in the midst of the orchestra to take front stage.  I am always slightly disappointed when soloists have to have their music with them, and Anna’s relative lack of projection at first may have had something to do with this.  Nonetheless her voice was pure, pleasing and if not drowned by the huge orchestra would have soared a little more, and Sinaisky’s baton could have helped her a little more in bringing the necessary balance about.

The audience was totally engaged even if not as sophisticated as those of the evening kind – too many whoops in the applause.  So I was absolutely delighted that they not only restricted their coughing at this difficult time of the year but held their applause for what seemed like a lifetime as the conductor’s baton held the silence for a satisfyingly and deservedly long interval before the house came crashing down with enthusiastic clapping and cheering.

After several returns to the rostrum, we were treated to an engaging encore of close harmonied late nineteenth century orchestral music, or so I guess.  I wish I knew, but, hey, who cares about names, it was a beautiful way to end this gorgeous Sunday afternoon occasion.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 27 January)

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