During the second half of a concert programme I have sometimes caught myself wondering why the results that my ears were conveying to me differed markedly from the first half. Was it the recurring problem which hard-pressed London orchestras are faced with – inadequate rehearsal time and the need to prioritise? Or was the conductor determined to keep their powder dry and not risk peaking too soon? Similar thoughts presented themselves to me as I listened to the final work in this all-Russian programme given by Alpesh Chauhan with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Here was the sweep and grandiloquence in the playing that had been missing earlier.

Alpesh Chauhan © Marcello Orselli
Alpesh Chauhan
© Marcello Orselli

Tchaikovsky had once considered writing an opera on the story of the unhappily married Francesca and her lover Paolo, immortalised in Dante’s Divine Comedy. When in 1876 he eventually started to compose his symphonic fantasy Francesca da Rimini, he had just seen the complete Ring cycle at Bayreuth. Wagner’s musical influence and that of Liszt infuse this score with a heady mixture of dramatic gestures and passionate lyrical intensity. But might Tchaikovsky perhaps also have heard Verdi’s Requiem, premiered just two years earlier? In times when secularism governed emotional thinking much less than now, this is music designed to strike the fear of God into mortal souls.

From its urgent beginning, the RPO strings, now sombre and richly-hued horns and wind powerfully representing the wailing and gnashing of teeth, Chauhan gave us a blistering ride to the edge of the volcano and heart-stopping glimpses into the deep abyss. But like all Renaissance and Baroque masters, Chauhan also understood the importance of chiaroscuro. Launched with a vibrant clarinet solo from Katherine Lacy, the central love music was elegantly and sensitively shaped, the music relaxing sufficiently before its inexorable return to the prospect of damnation in the ten emphatic chords and crashing gong with which the work closes. Chauhan had saved the best till last.

The Polovtsy, derived from the Slavic root for pale or blond(e), were a Turkic nomadic people who eventually settled on Russia’s southern borders. There is a restlessness in the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s final opera which mirrors the rootlessness of this tribe, but also an earthiness and more than a hint of Saturnalia. The fierce brass provided a few flourishes of warlike intentions, yet the strings often sounded too mechanical, just a tad too civilised for music that requires a savage bite. In the “Stranger in Paradise” theme, shamelessly copied in the 1953 musical Kismet along with other chunks of Borodin’s music, the aching sensuousness never properly registered at a business-like tempo.

True menace was also in short supply for the performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain which opened the second half. There were several opportunities for the woodwind principals to shine, with a welcome sharpness to the wind and brass choirs. However, neat-and-tidy playing from the strings is never really enough in the skirls of sound which the orchestration invites. This should be edge-of-the-seat stuff, the Witches’ Sabbath as a wild and pagan counterpart to any notion of “Dies Irae”, rather than a storm raging in the off.

An extended lyrical interlude between the more imposing orchestral blockbusters came in the form of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no.2 in G minor. The soloist was the young Armenian Diana Adamyan, the most recent winner of the Menuhin Competition. She is to be commended for choosing for her London concerto debut a piece which has neither instantly memorable melodic lines nor the virtuoso demands which place the soloist clearly front-of-stage. Her first unaccompanied entry evidenced a rich tone and awareness of cantabile line on which the first two movements depend. Lyrically expressive in the upper reaches and suitably weighty in the lower register, Adamyan made you acutely aware of the many anticipations of the composer’s Romeo and Juliet ballet, contemporaneous with the writing of this concerto. Prokofiev’s fertile imagination asserts itself most strikingly in the finale where the more percussive elements, underlined by Spanish castanets and a bass drum, give this shortest movement the character of a lively Spanish fiesta. In this rhythmically-driven celebration of the dance soloist, orchestra and conductor were at one.

For this concerto to completely work, it needs the storytelling gifts of a Scheherazade to transport you on a magic carpet to worlds beyond. In the first two movements I missed a floating quality in both the solo line and accompaniment which would have allowed the music to become airborne. To some extent this is a matter of dynamics. In a place like Cadogan Hall you can afford to whisper. And whisper is what Adamyan did in her encore, Krunk (The Crane) by Soghomon Soghomonian, commonly known as Komitas, played exquisitely and with utter commitment.

***11