Everybody likes a good story. But the way in which it is told is just as important, and in the first instalment of a year-long traversal of the works of Stravinsky, the London Philharmonic Orchestra was blessed to have at its helm one of the most inspired standard-bearers of adventurous planning, its Principal Conductor Vladimir Jurowski. Prize-winning numbers rarely recur in successive lottery draws, nor are they drawn in the same order, so there’s a good statistical chance that tonight’s audience will never again hear this rewarding combination of lesser-known pieces played live in an identical sequence during their lifetime.

Kristóf Baráti © Marco Borggreve
Kristóf Baráti
© Marco Borggreve

The storytelling began in mysterious vein. Rimsky-Korsakov was an obvious choice for inspiration, for he bequeathed to his most outstanding pupil an extraordinary ear for colour. His Skazka (variously entitled Fairy Tale or Legend and in its earliest conception Baba-Yaga) is a middle-period work which in turn reveals its debt to earlier influences. Soon after the expectant gloom at the start of this symphonic poem there is a clarinet solo straight from Borodin, and there follow rustic elements suggestive of Mussorgsky and a folksiness derived from Rimsky-Korsakov’s own teacher, Balakirev. Jurowski and the LPO revelled in the orchestral splendour: the long drawn out orchestral sighs from the sonorous strings, the glittering solo winds, the blasts from the lower brass and the three separate violin solos that already prefigure a similar storytelling device in Scheherezade. What stood out just as strongly though was the swashbuckling character of this music. There surely has to be a direct link between images of Cossacks thundering across the plain and the atmospheric film scores that Korngold was later to compose.

Stravinsky had a love-hate relationship with Glazunov and yet it is inconceivable that his ballet works could have acquired their elegance and delicacy without the influence of the earlier Russian master. It is a pity that his A minor concerto for the violin is so under-appreciated but its sterling qualities were in no way undersold in this sympathetic reading by Kristóf Baráti. He produced sensuous earthy sounds in the lower register and lyrical warmth in more high-lying passages, indulged in the playful moments as themes passed backwards and forwards between strings, woodwinds and solo instrument, delivered a very poised central cadenza and, after the trumpet-led fanfare with which the finale is launched, gave full expression to its sparkling rhythms and melodic lines. Here the glittering sounds from wind (flute and piccolo especially), brass and glockenspiel were like rays of sunshine catching ice-crystals on the frozen ground.

How good too that there was a pre-planned “encore” in the form of Glazunov’s orchestration of a Tchaikovsky miniature written for violin and piano, not least because Stravinsky adored this great Romantic and paid homage to him in his 1928 work Le Baiser de la fèe (to be performed next month). It is akin to an extended operatic aria, almost like something from Onegin, every bit as fine in conception as the slow movement of his violin concerto for which it was originally intended.

And then we were on to the self-declared “inventor of music” himself in the work that actually preceded his official Op.1 in order of composition, a suite of three songs for mezzo based on poems by Pushkin. Much of the success of this performance lay in the choice of Angharad Lyddon as soloist, singing from memory and projecting with warmth and flexibility the erotic character and dramatic twists of a musical morality tale. Already some of Stravinsky’s later keynotes were in evidence: the sudden downward “surprises” in the strings, the oscillating wind figures in the higher registers and the occasional angularity of the writing.

His E flat symphony is dedicated to Rimsky-Korsakov who clearly left his imprint on the work. This is most certainly the confident voice of a young composer able to write a full-length symphonic work for a large orchestra. One of Jurowski’s strengths lies in clarifying textures, and if anything his desire not to wallow in the lushness and opulence of the piece led to a slight feeling of unwelcome briskness in the third movement (actually marked Largo). Only later would the density here be pared back in recognition of the fact that “less” is often “more”. For now one simply had to take pleasure in this panoply from Imperial Russia, the clutch of Fabergé-like golden eggs glistening in radiant sunlight.

Given the teeming and protean musical ideas – and their masterly technical resolution – that young Igor was coming up with, it is hardly surprising that his contemporaries were unnerved and more than a tad envious at so much compositional pyrotechnics. Debussy probably hit the nail on the head with his comment: “When he is old, he will be unbearable... but for the moment he is unbelievable.”

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