20th century Russia has surely produced no greater storytellers than Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev, famed for their dramatic narrative ballets. The fast-rising Scottish conductor Rory MacDonald, known equally for his work as an operatic and orchestral conductor, selected a varied and creative programme of twentieth-century Russian narrative works, drawn from ballet and opera alike. Though Macdonald’s skill at crafting a musical narrative was never in doubt, the evening as a whole nevertheless failed to take flight.

Rory MacDonald © Benjamin Ealovega
Rory MacDonald
© Benjamin Ealovega
The concert started off with Dmitri Kabalevsky’s Colas Breugnon overture. The opera, based on the work of the same name by Romain Rolland, has certainly not entered the standard repertoire, though its overture remains a popular concert piece. Its light-hearted hijinks and dazzling writing for the whole orchestra bring to mind that of Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila or Shostakovich’s Festive Overture without the wit of either of those pieces; nevertheless, it served as a fun concert opener and adequately served as a virtuoso showpiece for the orchestra, a few flubbed runs notwithstanding.

The orchestra was joined by violinist Angelo Xiang Yu for Prokofiev’s second violin concerto. Yu, the winner of the 2010 Menuhin Competition and prizewinner at the 2006 Wieniawski Competition, has since overcome the ‘prodigy’ label and become renowned for his refulgent tone and mature musicality. These were both certainly in evidence; rarely have I heard the first movement’s romantic second theme, for instance, played with such lush sensitivity. Prokofiev’s dramatic concerto, though, is marked by the constant and rapid transition from nostalgic beauty to an almost sardonic darkness. Unfortunately, Yu remained inaudible for much of the movement’s passagework, his soft-grained tone not carrying the sufficient bite to cut through the orchestration. He was not helped in this matter by Macdonald’s ponderous conducting, favouring rich chords over transparent textures. The second movement was far superior, giving ample opportunity for Yu to show off his rich tone and musical sensitivity. Particularly impressive was his extreme upper register, which revealed a remarkable, even vibrato that eludes even the best of soloists in that range. The spell was rather dampened, however, by minute yet recurrent intonation slips throughout the movement. In contrast, Yu’s encore, the Adagio from Bach’s G minor sonata, revealed impeccable intonation and a wonderful intimacy – perhaps Yu’s thoughtful artistry is better suited to a recital format than to that of a concerto.

The second half of the concert was much improved, starting off with Igor Stravinsky’s Divertimento. Le baiser de la fée, the 1928 ballet from which the concert suite is derived, is an homage to Tchaikovsky, imbuing some of Tchaikovsky’s lesser-known piano and vocal pieces with Stravinsky’s customary spiky harmonies and rhythms. Macdonald drew incredibly lush sounds from the orchestra, and the solo viola and clarinet lines in the final pas de deux were appropriately Tchaikovskian in their languor. If anything, the long sweeping lines of the piece were too much emphasized, occasionally coming at the expense of effective pacing or rhythmic precision. This was certainly not the case with Prokofiev’s L’amour des trois oranges orchestral suite, which served as an appropriately raucous ending to the concert. Most effective was the second movement, depicting an infernal game of cards; here, the lower brass and winds ominously rumbled in a most exciting, atmospheric manner. Though the famous March was once again marred by some sloppy entrances and articulation, the final movement proved an energetic, satisfying finale to an uneven evening.