Classical: In league with the prince of darkness

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The Independent Culture


A CONCERT series entitled Stravinsky and the Stage is less of a contradiction than it might at first seem. Stravinsky's "stage", Stravinsky's "theatre", has long since flourished where choreographers, designers, and stage directors do not. That strangest of performance spaces - the concert platform - where formally attired musicians play out a composer's fancies to the cajolement of a conductor's baton, is its own drama: an intensely physical and yet oddly dispassionate ritual in which we, the audience, are at once silent watchers and active participants. The mise en scene - a study in black and white - sits well with Stravinsky's sense of detachment, abstraction, stylisation.

He might even have imagined The Soldier's Tale in this way. An empty space, a row of chairs, a stool, a table, a glass of water. Seven instrumentalists (the London Symphony's finest), a conductor (Michael Tilson Thomas), an "actor" (the excellent Peter Eyre) trooping in, the sheer incongruity of white ties and tails addressing what is essentially a mystery play with klezmer band accompaniment - all scrubby, weathered, earth tones and fractured metres. The theatrical machinations of this chilly little parable - as played out in WH Auden's creepily monochromatic text are rudimentary. Stravinsky calls the tune, and the tune is the devil's work.

Nothing in this capricious score, not even its insidious allusions to the popular music of the times, is quite what it seems. Tilson Thomas and his mighty handful of LSO principals (expertly led by Gordan Nikolitch, concert master of the pernicious danses macabres) gave an absolutely cracking account of it. Peter Eyre looked on, his oral costume changes as deft, as devilish, as Stravinsky's cubistic takes on Russian folklore.

Once upon a time, it had all been so very different. Sergei Diaghilev decreed it so. The second half of this opening concert (the first of three), found Tilson Thomas and the LSO spiriting us back to where it all began: the enchanted garden of the evil Kashchey. Enter The Firebird. In this wide-eyed and fantastical score, where the ubiquitous solo horn opens up one magic casement after another, an exquisite gaudiness must prevail.

Refinement, but not at the expense of the primary colours. Tilson Thomas knows that better than most. Pagan and precious do not mix. And so the wash of string tremolandi descending like a veil over the penultimate scene of Firebird was something you could almost reach out and touch. A tangible magic.

Stravinsky's "folksiness" is not implicit, impressionistic - it is fleshy and overt. How refreshing, then, to hear a performance of his next great ballet, Petrushka, that was rip-roaring in the best sense, a performance so unapologetically intoxicated by the brilliance and vitality of the material, not least, of course, those all-singing, all-dancing folk tunes. I cannot remember when I last heard a more virtuosic account than the LSO gave us here.

Petrushka and Pulcinella were a most companionable pairing for this second concert of the series. The latter, of course, "paid homage" to Pergolesi while robbing him blind. But how charmingly, how wittily Stravinsky, the born-again classicist, reinvented this music, unlikely instrumentations and refracted harmonies, further tweaking at the happy alliance of courtly grace and courtyard horseplay.

A dodgy mezzo, Ruby Philogene, plainly out of kilter with the style (the elegant tenor Kenneth Tarver, and the ripe bass David Wilson-Johnson caught it well enough), somewhat upset the balance of this otherwise engaging rendition of the complete score. But we were not at a loss for stage pictures. And there was Ode, Stravinsky's beautiful and rarely performed tripartite, its middle section originally intended to underscore the hunting-scene of Rob- ert Stevenson's Hollywood film of Bronte's Jane Eyre. Imagine that.