Bracing, mellifluous and impassioned might summarise the Philharmonia’s choice of music at the Anvil from a trio of Russian composers – each inhabiting their own distinctive footprint. Presiding over the orchestra and ensuring slick performances was Alpesh Chauhan, named ‘Newcomer of the Year’ in 2019 for his triumphant Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk with Birmingham Opera Company, since which time he has steadily garnered rave reviews. Judging by these riveting performances he is set to become a household name.

Alpesh Chauhan
© Marco Borrelli | Fondazione ORT

Proceedings opened with Stravinsky’s dazzling recreation of the Baroque concerto grosso that is Dumbarton Oaks. It’s a work from 1937-38 and consciously modelled on Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, drawing on the spirit rather than the letter, its borrowing prompting Stravinsky’s witty declaration “Bach would most certainly have been delighted to have loaned it to me...” There was plenty of wit in this admirably clear-sighted performance, notably the chattering woodwind in the central Allegretto, where its ‘birdsong’ caught the ear above velvety strings. Throughout, Chauhan fashioned an involving account, ensuring well-judged tempi and clarity of detail. Whether in mechanistic rhythms, tangy harmonies or succinct ostinato patterns, the fifteen players of the Philharmonia identified fully with Bach filtered through the lens of Stravinsky.

No less engaging was Glazunov’s Concerto in E flat major for alto saxophone and string orchestra, Op.109, his final work (1934) written during his exile in Paris. Having felt compelled to leave Russia six years earlier he was now considerably aged and, by all accounts, a shadow of his former self. Both melancholy and resignation can be heard in the concerto’s bittersweet Romanticism, yet this single movement work is not without humour, underlined here by a nimble-fingered Jess Gillam (former BBC Young Musician in 2016) whose performance combined emotional warmth and remarkable dexterity. Her honeyed tone caught the work’s nostalgia perfectly, and there was no lack of impish wit in the fugal finale. But it was in the slow central panel where she held the audience in thrall with her superbly calibrated pianissimo, hall-stilling in its intensity. For an encore she returned to the platform to exhibit the saxophone’s sultry character in what appeared to be an improvisation bearing hints of Gershwin’s Someone to watch over me. Poised, smoky and utterly beguiling.

The Philharmonia
© Camilla Greenwell

Barnstorming might best describe the Philharmonia’s account of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 4 in F minor, its first movement verging on the edge of hysteria at times, as if mirroring the composer’s fevered state of mind during its composition. Parts of it were sketched before his woefully misjudged marriage and its turbulent pages reflect a composer, as David Brown asserts, who was “almost driven out of his wits”. Chauhan’s own excitement, readily apparent in balletic gestures that came close to levitation, generated incisive playing. Unrestrained brass, ominous at the start with the Fate motif, and sparkling woodwind with their elegant contributions, not least a melting clarinet, were amongst the movement’s finer qualities. A soulful oboe set in motion the Andantino, but thereafter the movement never quite regained the atmosphere of its haunting opening bars. In the Scherzo, precision-engineered strings were unanimous to a fault. Elsewhere, woodwind and brass illuminated Tchaikovsky’s playfulness and pageantry. And so from the finale’s ‘lightning strike’, momentum gathered with an unstoppable rhythmic impetus, Fate vanquished in the movement’s final furlong, overwhelmed by Chauhan’s galvanising spirit and culminating in unequivocal triumph. 

****1