MUSIC / Custom and exile: SPSO / Dimitriev - Barbican Hall

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The Independent Culture
HEN a composer is left behind by the march of history, commentators seem all too ready to misunderstand and dismiss his work. But, rather than condemning him for not adjusting his step to the new times, it would be more productive to examine the richness of language and expression that results from viewing a new age through the previous era's eyes.

Rachmaninov furnishes what is perhaps the most extraordinary example of this chronological dislocation. In 1936, when he completed his Third Symphony, critics bullied him for being a hopeless late-romantic stranded in the age of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. How little they understood this unique masterpiece; on first hearing, its surface characterists may seem anachronistic but it is ultimately a true and original picture of its period.

For those who are conversant with the language of Rachmaninov's earlier and more straightforwardly romantic works such as the first three piano concertos and the previous two symphonies, the Third speaks as plainly as any work of art can of dispossession and exile. To criticise Rachmaninov for not updating his language would be to expect him to follow the course of Stravinsky, that cultural opportunist and hard-edged survivor. Rachmaninov attempted what was, in a sense, a more difficult task.

The St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, in a splendidly passionate and perceptive performance of the Third Symphony under its music director Alexander Dimitriev, showed us how, by using his long established language with integrity and honesty, Rachmaninov was able to respond to the world of the post-revolutionary Russian exile with special poignancy.

Constantly paring down his once rich textures, favouring the wind and muted brass, and then floating his violin section without octave doubling high above the supporting harmonies, the composer presents images of alienation and loss which would not have been available to a modernised language.

The lyric invention does not flood with the old abundance, of course, but even this seems an honest reponse to an emotional situation. Within Rachmaninov's newly concentrated world, expansiveness can still be suggested by short but beautifully judged extensions of phrase. The new lean textures, sharply focusing individual instruments and sections, place an additional burden on an orchestra's virtuosity, and the St Petersburg players responded superbly.

The soaring intensity of the strings in cantabile and their unanimity of attack and depth of sonority elsewhere were most impressive. The wind and brass meanwhile brought the greatest emotional resonance to their exposed writing.

Earlier we had heard a finely individual interpretation of Tchaikovsky's fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet, which took fire after a rather casual opening. This was followed by a vivacious and warm-hearted performance of Glazunov's Violin Concerto by the impulsive, almost improvisatory young violinist Maxim Fedotov.

Glazunov as a composer was not able to rise to the turmoil of his age in the same way as Rachmaninov. And shortly after this concerto was composed in 1904, he seemed to have lost creative heart, despite living up to the time of the Rachmaninov symphony.

A genuine reactionary, then - as opposed to Rachmaninov, the flexible conservative - Glazunov still commanded an emotionally vital and structurally inventive vision. The Violin Concerto, if sometimes lacking the power and immediacy of the composer at his best, remains an attractive and fluent piece of work. Fedotov brought great flair to its brilliant colour and virtuosity, responding as eagerly to the opening's dark lyricism as to the fireworks of the hunting finale.