Something wicked this way comes - twice. "Old rattlebones" Kashchey - Russian folklore's favourite baddie - got two shots at immortality in Vladimir Jurowski's London Philharmonic Prom.
A rare concert performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's "autumnal fairy tale" Kashchey the Immortal was imaginatively paired with Stravinsky's precocious first ballet The Firebird, demonstrating in no uncertain terms how the pupil can run rings round the teacher if the teacher does his job too diligently.
Kashchey the Immortal is hardly Rimsky-Korsakov's finest hour. In the original source material Kashchey's immortal soul is encased in an egg; in the opera, Rimsky's librettist rather ingeniously devised that it should reside in the tears of his stony-hearted daughter Kashcheyevna - a role wonderfully taken here by the red-headed mezzo Elena Manistina whose attempted seduction of the opera's hero occasions its most beguiling scene. It's like Kundry from Wagner's Parsifal suddenly got lucky, though the desired kiss instantly and somewhat inconveniently transforms her into a weeping willow tree. That transformation affords a brief but welcome apotheosis for one of Rimsky's sweetly folkloric themes, nudging us ever closer to Stravinsky's shimmering wonderworld.
For the rest, though, Kashchey the Immortal is curiously restrained, its words simply set against modestly deployed instrumental forces where colouristic effects are achieved more in the harmony than the orchestration. Its dryness is almost disconcerting. Jurowski did his utmost to make it less so, pointing up the fine detail, making every note count. His Russian cast - essential with so much weight on the text - on the whole delivered, though Vyacheslav Voynarovsky in the title role was a something of a one-colour villain, his words a lot less threatening than his reputation.
The percussive obbligato of rain on the Albert Hall roof somewhat compromised one or two ear-pricking pianissimi in Jurowski's intensely atmospheric account of Stravinsky's complete Firebird ballet. How rarely one hears the quicksilver changes in accent and dynamics so subtly and effectively observed - subito piano or forte effects snatching away the sound almost before we've registered it. The pointillistic nature of the score was on the whole keenly realised by the London Philharmonic winds. Christopher Parkes' solo horn was outstanding as purveyor of dreams against the shimmering half-light of those breathless string tremolandi.
Only the solo bassoon disappointed in his transporting lullaby - too many bumps in the phrasing to lull us unsuspectingly into that big sleep. But the final emergence from total darkness into blinding light was about as good as it gets, the book closed on Kashchey the Immortal with an aurora of six trumpets.
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