Prom number 40 saw a Russian conductor at the helm of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, playing a selection of music from some of the great Russian composers of the last two centuries, all with very distinct styles. Rimsky Korsakov’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain began the concert and conjured up all the fantastical imagery the name promises. Conductor Vladimir Jurowski initiated a faster tempo than I had heard in the past, giving particular sections a much more aggressive, driving quality. Though the piece is known for its powerful and dark sections the most successful areas I felt were actually the quieter, more delicate points, particularly in the latter stages. The orchestra were highly sensitive to Jurowski’s very specific movements indicating dynamics and articulation, bringing the music alive, with some glorious solos from the clarinet and flute. Though a very good performance overall, there wasn’t quite enough violence and volume for my liking in the darker sections as the music didn’t quite manage to bring back my childhood memories of the terror experienced from hearing the piece in Fantasia.

Photo of Gweneth-Ann Jeffers in Skopje courtesy of Robert Gilder & Co.
Photo of Gweneth-Ann Jeffers in Skopje courtesy of Robert Gilder & Co.

Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto followed this and displayed a very different sort of Russian music. Soloist Julia Fischer gave an outstanding performance. Her use of vibrato was very well thought and balanced throughout the piece as she interpreted the music expertly, bringing character and energy to every note. Though she had a few wobbles with her intonation –which were immediately corrected– the vigour she brought to the piece was exemplary. Her rhythmic vitality, particularly in the second movement, complimented Shostakovich’s writing perfectly, as the rhythm is what holds his unusual tonality together. I was particularly impressed by the intensity of her attack which helped to bring out tumultuous harmonies particularly on double stops. Surpassing all these positives, however, was the way she seemed to interpret the music to produce several different voices out of one melodic line. In her long cadenza she produced an incredible variety of tone, making it seem as though several instruments were interacting with each other. She seemed to be able to transform an initially sedate melodic phrase, when repeated instilling a huge amount of emotion, totally changing the audience’s perception. This was an incredible performance from both Fischer and the London Philharmonic, who had some very enjoyable tunes too. Had they not already been standing, I’m sure the promenaders would have given an almighty standing ovation, as they bayed for an encore, and were finally rewarded after the soloist was brought out for a fourth time.

Scriabin’s Reverie showed yet another facet of Russian music as the orchestra played this heavily Romantic work with real vigour and feeling, with some delicious use of portamento in the strings. For such a short piece it was a real achievement to create such a sensitive and poignant performance, and made a nice appetiser for the final work of the evening: Prokofiev’s third symphony.

I was immediately struck by the awesome power from the lower brass and percussion, who blasted the audience throughout the symphony in typically Prokofievian fashion. There were beautiful sweeping melodies in the strings, particularly in the first movement, who played with excellent commitment and well-thought phrasing. Jurowski’s conducting also seemed to really invigorate the strings to give their highly rhythmic sections –in the third movement especially– a lot of gusto, with very effective sforzandos amongst highly evocative harmonic glissandi. There were also some wonderfully serene moments that had an almost impressionist quality, such as at the beginning of the second movement. The orchestra seemed to have a good understanding of how to extract vivid orchestral colour as this was set against darker forces of the lower strings and woodwind, creating real drama. Without a doubt the best part of this performance was the commitment shown by all the players to blow the audience away with raw power, the final movement evoking a hellish image, with strings working furiously to compete with the percussion and lower brass, for whom this piece must have been a dream. If anyone doubts the [annihilative] power of classical music, they should listen to this.

Simon Birch
15th August 2010