“To orchestrate is to create, and this cannot be taught,” explained Rimsky-Korsakov in the preface to his book Principles of Orchestration. The composer himself was self-taught in such matters, yet the dazzling effect of works such as Scheherazade influenced a generation of pupils, especially the young Igor Stravinsky. It’s early days in the London Philharmonic’s Changing Faces series, tracing Stravinsky’s works chronologically alongside those of his contemporaries or influencers. This second concert marked his debt to his great mentor, culminating in Stravinsky’s glittering ballet The Firebird, itself bejewelled and varnished in a Rimsky-styled lacquer.

Vladimir Jurowski © Drew Kelley
Vladimir Jurowski
© Drew Kelley

Composed a year before The Firebird, the Scherzo fantastique sounds like a dry run for the ballet. Indeed, Diaghilev was present at the première and was so impressed he offered Stravinsky the Firebird commission soon afterwards. Vladimir Jurowski drew out the Scherzo’s pointillist detail so that it effervesced, flutter-tongued flutes and shimmering strings flitting and buzzing like Rimsky’s infamous Bumble-Bee. The slower central section nods towards another influence – Wagner – but we already seemed to have one foot in Kastchei’s magical garden.

There are also pre-echoes of The Firebird’s opening pages in Stravinsky’s Funeral Song, particularly its juddering double basses and sinuous chromatic lines. The work was composed in 1909 for a memorial concert for Rimsky, but the score was lost after its single performance, finally unearthed in the St Petersburg Conservatory in 2015. Orchestras have scrambled over each other to perform it – this is the ninth time Bachtrack has reviewed it since its modern première – and I think it’s a significant work in acknowledging his debt to Rimsky but also in signposting his writing for the Ballets Russes. Jurowski had full measure of its noble, solemn tread, an orchestral procession “filing past the tomb of the master” in Stravinsky’s own words, glowering trombones offering cold comfort.

Rimsky-Korsakov himself was represented by a real rarity, his single movement Piano Concerto in C sharp minor. After a ruminative introduction in which bassoon and clarinet spin bardic lines, the piano steals in. Rimsky is nothing but succinct. His concerto strikes me as Rachmaninov in embryonic form but whereas Rachmaninov would probably have spun its limited material out for 40 minutes, Rimsky wraps it up in just 15. The solo writing is never flashy, but the romantic middle section, based on one of the folksongs Balakirev collected, is a charmer, although soloist Alexander Ghindin could have shaped it with more poetry. Outer sections had the requisite sparkle and precision, a quality sadly lacking in his – albeit apt – encore, the Danse russe from Petrushka.

Jurowski and the LPO delivered a scintillating account of the full Firebird score (none of the suites really does it justice). From the subterranean basses and slithering glissando violins, Jurowski wove an hypnotic spell, baton tracing precise patterns whilst his left hand gently manipulated, as if operating a marionette. Juliette Bausor (flute) and Jonathan Davies (bassoon) impressed with sensitively shaped solos, while the brass, accompanying the evil magician Kastchei, curled their lips and snarled like the fiercest of his monsters. Principal horn David Pyatt phrased the closing hymn of rejoicing wonderfully. Jurowski was most careful in his placement of the off-stage brass, Wagner tubas making a priestly entrance in sober tread. For a moment, it was almost as if Stravinsky was back beside Rimsky’s bier.

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