It took the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra a little while to settle into tonight’s performance – which was a shame, because Borodin’s overture to Prince Igor can be a fantastic programme opener. A slightly untidy brass chord began the measured introduction, which sadly lacked tension in the build-up to the sudden fanfare and breakneck main theme. The short clarinet, flute and horn solos that followed, however, were skilfully phrased and had a lovely clean tone – and the recapitulation of the main theme after the development section was noticeably livelier and had a bit more spark. Overall, though, I felt the piece could have benefited from more dynamic and tonal contrast. Since a great deal of Russian music from this era is characterised by repetition and variation – rather than a more Germanic development of motivic material – there is arguably a need to create musical interest in other ways. Incidentally, the work should really be attributed in part to Glazunov: Borodin never actually committed the overture to paper, so Glazunov – who had heard it played at the piano before Borodin died – reconstructed the work “roughly according to Borodin’s plan”, as he put it.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra © David Lindsay 2007
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
© David Lindsay 2007

By the time Alexei Volodin made his appearance for Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, the RPO had warmed up and was on much better form. The first and second movements in particular had plenty of contrast in mood and tone, with the orchestra playing an active part alongside Volodin’s technically brilliant pyrotechnics. An exquisitely shaped clarinet solo opened the work with a haunting “Russian” theme (so called because Prokofiev conceived this melody years before the concerto’s 1921 completion, when he had not yet left his homeland for America). Following this short Andante, the spirited opening theme of the Allegro led to a prickly dance-like passage accompanied, unusually, by a cross-legged castanet player at the back of the percussion section. The subsequent development distorted the dance theme further, before returning to a variation of the “Russian” theme in the piano. The “out with a bang” final flourish prompted a not undeserved between-movements round of applause.

It was in the second movement of the concerto that both soloist and orchestra pulled out all the stops. The measured main theme reappeared in five variations, each with its own distinct character that was exploited to maximum effect. Most notable was the fourth variation in which Volodin transformed the theme into a creeping, ghostly episode – playing on the opening octave leap in the original melody, combined with slippery chromaticism. A slowly rocking two-note bass eventually came to a halt before Volodin set off again into the final livelier, more playful variation. The mischievous mood continued into the third movement, until a broad, sweeping melody in the cellos was picked up by the piano and orchestra, and given “the full Rachmaninov treatment” (as the programme notes put it). An instant cheer erupted from the audience after a frantic conclusion.

Despite the expert Prokofiev performance, I think Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 1 was the real winner in this concert. As one of Tchaikovsky’s earliest works, it is inevitably performed less frequently than his later, better known symphonies – a shame, especially since Tchaikovsky himself believed that it was “better than many of my other more mature works”. Again, it was the woodwind section that shone in the first movement, with the flutes adding delicate decoration to the first theme, and clarinets introducing the second.

As with the Prokofiev, the second movement stood out for me, especially with regards to texture and tone quality. The violins adopted a sugary sweet character in the introductory theme – the first time this evening that I really became aware of this section. Following an equally expressive oboe solo, the violas took up the main theme with a deep, woody tone that contrasted beautifully with the earlier violins. The development section was characterised by some very sparse textures – a welcome contrast to the final movement of the Prokofiev.

After a slightly lacklustre Scherzo the raucous Finale ended the piece on a high note, provoking a shout of “hurrah” from the audience. After a rocky start to the concert the RPO had certainly upped the standard of performance; in fact, I’d have liked to have heard the Borodin again at the end.