What do Kasperle, Pulcinella and Punch have in common? They are different names for the same puppet, also known as Petrushka in Russian (itself a diminutive form of Peter). Petrushka is almost certainly the saddest puppet story ever conceived, worlds away from any Disney-like ending. While he was writing his ballet for Diaghilev’s troupe in Paris, Stravinsky came down with nicotine poisoning. Like nicotine itself, the music is pure poison (in the sense of the Old French word poison meaning “magic potion”). It should be prescribed for anyone at a loose end and especially those suffering from SAD.

Ray Chen © Tom Doms
Ray Chen
© Tom Doms

All the colours of the spectrum, blinding white light and energy galore pour out of this masterpiece, which in its 1911 original version (quadruple wind, two additional cornets, a pair of harps and an impressive array of percussion) presents multiple opportunities for instrumental and orchestral brilliance. In this performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski details were not always immaculate, but there was a high degree of precision-tooling that these days this particular combination of conductor and orchestra demonstrates in abundance. From the very beginning collective muscles were flexed, sinews stiffened and lungs saturated with pure oxygen, the supple string rhythms rippling through the ranks like snakes wriggling in the bright sunlight.

For the first time I have ever witnessed in a live performance a helpful narrative thread was provided in the form of surtitles, so that it was easy to follow the individual elements of bustling activity and theatrical drama which underpin the historical setting of the Shrovetide Fair (and we were just three days away from Shrove Tuesday – what a coincidence!) in front of the Imperial Palace. But though we had all the elegance you could wish for, the emotional temperature never quite set the heart racing. The boots of the peasants and the maskers (for this work has elements of the Russian carnival) were more likely to have been made with an eye to product placement rather than bearing any obvious scuff marks. I missed a few key ingredients: Russian earthiness, a ruggedness in the string playing and a willingness to take risks. For instance, the quarrel scene between the Moor and Petrushka could have been even more ferociously characterised, the oboe solo in the dance of the wet-nurses needed to be rather more unbuttoned and when the bear appeared those clarinet shrieks would have benefited from greater stridency and a much more prominent tuba. However, the final confrontation between the two male puppets was magically realised, with susurrations from the strings and anguished counterpoint from the wind soloists.

There was much ravishing playing at the outset of the concert in the three miniatures by Liadov (whose pupils included Prokofiev and Myaskovsky). This trio of musical representations of the supernatural (a constant feature of Russian fairy tales) reminded us of this composer’s inventiveness. Baba Yaga starts with a string of collective sneezes (Kodaly wasn’t the first to think of that), The Enchanted Lake begins with a series of collective sighs from strings and harp and Kikimora has opening chthonic sounds from basses and then clarinets and bassoons in the lowest register. Throughout Jurowski had a keen ear for sharp-edged instrumental detail but also for the sensitive shaping of the multi-layered textures that make up musical mood-painting of rare quality.

Between these two blocks of lush orchestration in the best Russian tradition there was a welcome palate-cleanser in the form of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto. To be sure, if you take only the first few bars you might think the landscape hadn’t changed very much – it is like biting into a big juicy plum – but the astringency for which this composer is noted is never far away. That itself was tempered by the very fine playing of the soloist, Ray Chen, whose generous tone and nuanced expression highlighted the many instances of lyricism, not least in the slow movement where the parallels with the ballet score for Romeo and Juliet on which the composer was simultaneously working most obviously spring to mind. This is not a showy piece at all, a mere vehicle for virtuosic display. Instead, with its light scoring (double wind, pairs of horns and trumpets and no timpani at all) and close thematic interweaving between soloist and orchestra, it sets up an even-handed dialogue in which neither side ever threatens to break out of classical restraint. The only reservation I had about this glowing performance (in which Jurowski and the LPO ideally matched the soloist) concerned the slightly deliberate tempo set for the finale. The marcato marking was properly observed, but with the castanets suggesting a Spanish fiesta this cried out for even more in the way of sparkling dance rhythms. Chen’s encore was the first movement (“Obsession”) of Ysaÿe’s Violin Sonata no. 2.

****1