In this triptych from Jos van Immerseel and his Anima Eterna Brugge, three Russian composers underwent the authentic instrument treatment for which this Belgian ensemble is famous. Using the instruments and orchestral layout the composers knew may be admirable but has its limitations. Some fifty years were spanned in this concert and yet everything was performed with the same instruments. Are we to assume the Philadelphia Orchestra which premiered Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934 sounded the same as Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestra in 1888, not to mention the Czech or Russian forces playing Prokofiev’s Romeo in the late 1930s? I guess not, but eventually this wasn’t the main concern.

Jos van Immerseel, Anna Vinnitskaya and Anima Eterna Brugge
© Jan Landau

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture set the tone of the evening. All attention went to inner detail, highlighting AEB’s excellent musicians, yet was far from revelatory, the music hardly ever coming alive in van Immerseel’s hands. The link with the liturgical chants was obvious, based on refined harmonies, but the following celebrations were too hesitant and subdued. Part of the deal were some of the most ominous bassoons in the business and trombones to raise the dead, but the timpani made little impact.

AEB’s quest for an American Steinway similar to the instrument that Rachmaninov played in 1934 failed. Russian pianist Anna Vinnitskaya, who is new to authentic instruments, had to do with a 1906 Steinway. A combination of its lighter sound and the prominence of the orchestra in van Immerseel’s approach turned the Rhapsody into an orchestral work with piano obbligato rather than a piano concerto. Vinnitskaya blended seamlessly in the ensemble playing, whether in dialogue with other musicians or solo, offering sparkle and great clarity. The slower sections and the famous 18th Variation were performed with unaffected simplicity, but because of van Immerseel’s microscopic approach the closing pages lacked excitement.

Rachmaninov’s Vocalise fared best of all, boasting transparent string playing as well as an unusual placement, with four violins standing left and right of the orchestra.

Jos van Immerseel and Anima Eterna Brugge
© Jan Landau

Prokofiev’s Second Suite from his ballet Romeo and Juliet, however, struggled with issues of balance, intonation and phrasing. Van Immerseel’s tempi were, at best, cautious, lapses in tension seemed to be the rule and hinted at a lack of affinity with this music. This is music composed for the theatre, yet this traversal was a succession of unrelated, mostly dull episodes without a flicker of life or imagination.

Instrumental details could again be admired (especially from the flutes, saxophone and the ever reliable lower brass section), or merely stuck out like a sore thumb. Oddly, others remained buried in the orchestral mass (the oboe in the Dance, or the shriek of agony from the cornet in Romeo at Juliet’s Grave). The strings (divided 16/6/6/5) sounded undernourished while van Immerseel’s spotlighting emphasised the more grotesque effects of the score. The dissonant opening of The Montagues and Capulets was powerful, but was otherwise bland; the Allegro pesante laboured through the ballroom, and Juliet was rigid and frigid before Friar Laurence was hacked to death with over-emphatic staccato basses. While Romeo and Juliet Before Parting expressed something of the tenderness and even the impending doom, van Immerseel let it fall to pieces in the Andante carried by the horns. Only the Dance of the Girls with Lilies flowed gracefully and was illuminated by fine solo work from the winds and the violin.

Trying to recreate the sound of the period is all good and well, but let’s also make music please.