A wedding feast, a man in drag and an outwitted fox were unlikely accomplices in the second concert in the Philharmonia's series Stravinsky: Myths and Rituals. In a concert entitled Tales, Esa-Pekka Salonen focussed on three vocal works, composed in close proximity during exile imposed by the First World War. They hark back to old Russia, full of nostalgia despite none being based on authentic folksong or rhyme. This splendid evening was given additional Russian authenticity by featuring young soloists from the Mariinsky Theatre. With open palms scything the air, Salonen led sharply rhythmic performances, driving Stravinsky's often relentless music forward powerfully.

<i>Renard</i> © Camilla Greenwell Photography
Renard
© Camilla Greenwell Photography

The burlesque Renard was composed in Switzerland in 1915-16, although it had to wait until 1922 for its première by the Ballets Russes at the Paris Opéra. It's a nonsense tale of how the vixen, Renard, tries to capture a cockerel, but is outfoxed, her attempts foiled by the cockerel and his allies, the cat and the ram. Director Irina Brown added four male dancers to the score's cast of four male singers, presenting the action on a raised stage behind the Philharmonia Orchestra. Entering to an off-kilter march, swerving between duple and triple time, the atmosphere of a circus was immediately created, the singers clad in brightly coloured silk cossack shirts. Our vixen wore striped tights and an orange tutu, its disguises including a headdress of an Orthodox priest to try and lure the cockerel from its perch. Quinny Sacks' choreography helped tell the tale, a trio of kicks and ankle flicks eventually driving the vixen away.

Having the singers mixing with the dancers on the platform helped integrate the action, although one bass voice was almost completely lost as a result. Salonen caught the work's sense of mischief via an unusual ensemble of single strings dominated by woodwinds and brass. Into the mix came the virtuosic cimbalom playing of Cyril Dupuy – Stravinsky had discovered the instrument while dining with Ernest Ansermet and completely fell in love with it, acquiring one shortly afterwards. The cimbalom isn't remotely Russian, but its tangy clangorous tone added an earthy, peasant feel to this pithy score.

Natalia Pavlova (Parasha) and Artyom Melikhov (Vassily) in <i>Mavra</i> © Camilla Greenwell Photography
Natalia Pavlova (Parasha) and Artyom Melikhov (Vassily) in Mavra
© Camilla Greenwell Photography
So what does become of Renard? Director Irina Brown is in no doubt. A fox pelt adorns the shoulders of Natalia Pavlova's Parasha at the beginning of Mavra, Stravinsky's minuscule opera buffa. Parasha inveigles her lover, Vassily, into the household disguised as 'Mavra', the new cook. All sorts of things sizzle in the kitchen until Parasha's mother and their nosey neighbour discover 'Mavra' shaving. Vassily takes flight through the window and the opera just stops. Stravinsky's music is full of strutting syncopation, although there are nostalgic, folksy wind chords in the brief prelude. Unusual orchestral forces were evident here too – two violins and a viola over a weighty foundation of a full cello section and four double basses. A highlight came via a grumpy trumpet solo as 'Mavra' angrily sweeps the stage. Simply staged in front of a hessian backdrop, it worked splendidly. 

Artyom Melikhov sang with burly strength as Vassily/Mavra and Natalia Pavlova's sexy Parasha impressed with its lovely clear tone, although her lower register lacks support, making some of her phrasing breathy.

A complete change of stage set up took place in the interval ahead of Les Noces. Four pianos stood in line, while a battery of percussion took up positions on the (now lowered) stage behind. There was no attempt at staging here (despite the dancers from Renard begin advertised as performers in this work) but it struck a ritual feel, with the members of Philharmonia Voices simply dressed in green and white tabards flanking the soloists, carrying scores fixed with lamps.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting <i>Les Noces</i> © Camilla Greenwell Photography
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting Les Noces
© Camilla Greenwell Photography

Stravinsky uses instruments and texts as percussion instruments – rhythm and repetition are paramount rather than textual meaning. No translation was provided as no translation is ideal. Instead, we had a parched earth scrolling down the screen with ancient Russian texts as the four tableaux from the wedding are played out. The stand-out voice here was Margarita Ivanova whose clear, diamond-hard soprano sliced through the ensemble wonderfully. Salonen drove the complex rhythms convincingly, controlling the percussion assault. The four pianos – spearheaded by no less a player than Pierre-Laurent Aimard – helped create the clangorous bell effects which chime through the work, until their tolling drew this splendid concert to a close. 

 

UK listeners can catch this concert via the BBC iPlayer for 30 days. 

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