ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL
STRAVINSKY ONCE described Rimsky-Korsakov as "like an adopted parent... sympathetic... generous, and unkind only to admirers of Tchaikovsky".
Never knowingly unstinting in his praise, Stravinsky then added: "Obviously there was nothing profound, either in Rimsky's nature, or in his music." Perhaps, with Christmas approaching and London concert life given over to "nothing profound", that makes Rimsky's music the perfect choice for the London Philharmonic Orchestra's brief festival.
A feast of Rimsky-Korsakov alone might be a little rich, even for this time of year, and Sunday's concert, conducted by Alexander Lazarev, offered Rimsky's opera Kashchey the Immortal alongside Glazunov's sombre, but not unduly solemn, Prelude to the Memory of Rimsky-Korsakov, and Stravinsky's 1911 Firebird suite.
No doubt Stravinsky would feel thoroughly grumpy about having his first great masterpiece served as a kind of bonne bouche for Kashchey ("The librettos of his operas... are, on the whole, embarrassingly bad"), but the juxtaposition was telling, and not only because of shared narrative characteristics. The Firebird can seem an unfocused piece, but Lazarev and his players found a proper theatricality; the brass a little raw, as it should be, the strings menacing in their low thrum. Lazarev, prancing like a giant firebird himself, went wholeheartedly for the big gestures, making the "Infernal Dance" a terrifying climax to a piece that shows just how much Stravinsky learnt from lessons with Rimsky.
Nothing in Kashchey had quite the same impact. Rimsky described his one- act opera as an "autumn fairy-tale", and as in all good fairy-tales, surface good cheer is always mitigated by an underlying melancholy. Yet with its magic potions, flying Storm Knights and a daughter who becomes a weeping willow, it needs more forthright presentation than this rather stiff concert performance. Lazarev had a cast of regulars from the Kirov and the Bolshoi, and it was bracing to hear Russian sung by Russians, but only the rumbling bass of Vladimir Matorin's Storm Knight felt like a figure from the opera house, although Marina Shaguch sang well; this was no conventional fairy- tale maiden, but a vengeful princess singing a sweetly lethal lullaby.
The previous Thursday, Mark Elder's rather congested programme put Rimsky in the company of Glinka, Mussorgsky and Stravinsky again. Unlike Lazarev, Elder is at home with sweeping grandiloquence, and has the commitment to convince us that there's more to Rimsky than glittery orchestration. It would have been good to get more of May Night than the Act One excerpts he offered, but in Marianna Tarasova, Vsevolod Grivnov and Paata Burchuladze, Elder had three personalities to match his own. Tarasova was particularly impressive, not a barnstorming mezzo, but warmly musical and matched to Grivnov's Italianate tenor. And if Burchuladze is not quite so weighty a bass as he once was, still there's plenty of sulphur in the voice.
Rimsky's operas may have been comforting stories Tsarist Russia told itself when times were hard, but these performances proved that they had a still potent brilliance that sparkles as brightly as any Christmas bauble.
The London Philharmonic plays Rimsky-Korsakov, Sibelius and Brahms, 7.30pm, Thursday 17 December, Royal Festival Hall (0171 960 4242)
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