Oxana Yablonskaya, Holywell Music Room, Oxford, <BR></BR> Prom 30, Royal Albert Hall, London /BBC Radio 3, <BR></BR>Rusalka, Roxburgh theatre, Buckingham

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The Independent Culture

The Russian-born pianist Oxana Yablonskaya settled in New York in 1977 and now teaches at the Juilliard School. She was one of several distinguished visitors to the Third International Piano Festival in Oxford, where she gave masterclasses and, on Thursday evening, a recital in the Holywell Music Room, a modest horseshoe-shaped building dating from 1748 and one of the first purpose-built concert halls. With its wooden floors and steeply-raked bench-seats, the Holywell's atmosphere is intimate and friendly, but the space was too small for Yablonskaya's style of playing, which is massive. Her programme, too, traced the horizons of the old Russian school – if indeed such a thing exists – with three Scarlatti sonatas, Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata, two song arrangements by Liszt, some pieces by Tchaikovsky and studies by Scriabin.

Two lively Scarlatti sonatas, in C major and A minor, were acceptably vigorous, while between them, the famous "Pastorale" was sober but not insensitive. Nothing prissy. But Scarlatti's hot-bloodedness seemed to spill into the first movement of Beethoven's "Waldstein" to dangerous effect, because the tempo was so fast the rapid passages became a gabble. In the short slow movement, Yablonskaya produced a warm, firm tone and an effect of solemnity. The finale was all in strict tempo – very much the Russian view of German Classicism, which views it as a straitjacket. Relaxation came, if in conventionally sentimental form, in two arrangements of Schubert songs by Liszt. "Auf dem Wasser zu singen" seemed a bit heavy-handed in such a small room, weighed down by lingering on every first beat, while from the start of "Gretchen am Spinnrade", Yablonskaya spelt out the expressive appeal of each note of the melody.

After the interval, Tchaikovsky's Dumka, Op 59, beginning with a theme faintly recalling the "Volga Boat Song", seemed over-extended, which is why, possibly, three pieces from The Seasons, listed in the programme book, were dropped altogether, though we did hear a short independent Polka. After which Yablonskaya plunged into a selection of six studies from Scriabin's marvellous Opus 8 set. And plunged is the word. Hardly pausing from one to the next, her way with these gorgeous pieces was mostly coarse and heavy, though No 11 in B flat minor was played with due sensitivity. For the rest, it was often hard to hear what exactly was going on, and as the piano got more and more out of tune, I really feared it might collapse under the strain.

Adrian Jack

Prom 30, Royal Albert Halllondon / bbc radio 3

Re-formed music within a framework of well-established work from the 20th century – Ives and Janacek – served to scare away an audience for Sunday night's Prom with David Robertson conducting the BBC SO. A pity, for in reality there was little to frighten any stray horse. The name Boulez may continue to strike terror into the heart of your average punter, but the name Tobias Picker can have meant nothing except possible fear – in this case wholly misplaced.

The link between Boulez and Picker amounted to reworkings of previous work. Boulez we know to be the arch-tinkerer of our times; Picker we know less about. Indeed his moving and attractive Cello Concerto, a Prom's commission receiving its world premiere, is the first major orchestral work by this gifted American composer to be heard in the UK. Picker has been written about in this country on account of his staged operas, so it comes as little surprise that his cello concerto should have found inspiration from the written word. Of the four movements, Picker regards the first and last as songs without words. Words, however, are intimately associated: the solo cello line of the first movement follows closely the rhythm of ee cummings' "Not Even the Rain", as Paul Watkins demonstrated in a particularly delightful pre-concert talk between soloist and composer. The two inner movements are inspired by the shortest of poems by Quasimodo.

Picker has reworked an earlier suite for cello and piano giving it a new shape and blessing it with fine instrumental colouring that never swamps the soloist. Picker describes himself sardonically as a "collapsed 12-tone composer" and indeed the work is rooted in tonality beginning almost where Elgar left off. In its first and last movements, Picker preserves an Elgarian sense of melancholy, opting for broad lyricism which allows the soloist ample room to do what the cello does best: to sing. Contrast is provided by a bouncy, syncopated Stravinskian-influenced second movement where the soloist hardly draws breath. Watkins excelled, tenderly nurturing the lyricism yet powerful in virtuosic moments of double-stopping and passage work. It appears grateful to play; a valuable addition to the cello repertoire.

Sterner was the UK premiere of Boulez's Notation VII in orchestrated form. Twelve bars of piano music dating from 1945 have been transformed into 18 pages of score, a score that resembles the print-out of a circuit board. Using a vast orchestra, Boulez knows how to dazzle; the ear is fantastically fastidious to his favourite colours, the flutes, the mallet instruments, the bells. Washes of gossamer tinkling cover an almost regular beat making this piece, alongside the four other orchestrated movements, one of Boulez's most beguiling works.

Annette Morreau

Rusalka, Roxburgh theatre, Buckingham

A full moon bathed Capability Brown's follied landscape as punters emerged from Stowe Opera's bewitching new Rusalka. Just as well – as the one thing Ian McKillop's designs for Robin Martin Oliver's largely bewitching production missed was a clearly defined moon. Rather, huge green pendants, like a Stygian array of Cavaillé-Coll organ pipework or a Piper print of sylvan stalactites, plunged us into watery depths: superb, except that they were unrelieved when the fronting gauze parted. Only in Act II is lighting director Mark Steeds's ubiquitous gloom lifted. An extra (even half-light) follow-spot in front of the nicely imagined dry-ice water cascade might have helped the principals look less like Regency wallpaper.

Stowe's main problems were moves and subtitles: a quick whip-round of an audience that included Michael Heseltine could have sorted the former. Impressively, the first-night hearers coped with the Czech – the Ondine myth on which young Jaroslav Kvapil based his Andersenesque libretto speaks largely for itself. Oliver's Act II court scene – abetted by Stowe's uniformly fine chorus – is as nobly staged as a Fledermaus ball; but earlier, gauzy water nymphs gyrate ineffectually (in rather striking pondlife costumes) and the Water Goblin (the superb Julian Close, a RNCM triumph in Verdi and Turnage and a Tomlinsonian bass in the dramatic mould of Clive Bayley) ploddingly cavorts. Fiona MacDonald's vocally piercing Jezibaba – an Iron Age bag lady of Hardyesque cut – does much the same later on. It all pales beside Heather Reynolds' enchanting Act II ballet, though the wood nymphs – especially no 2, the Icelandic-born Silla Knudsen, 22 years old and RNCM-trained – proved rather fine.

Musically, Stowe approaches things with a level head, a sound hand on the tiller and a beautiful feel for the score. The conductor, Robert Secret, not only masters Dvorak's protracted climaxes – all three acts rounded off superbly, though more of Secret's well-judged rubati might have helped the first night float a little more – but attracts terrific playing: darkly Parsifal-like woodwind; gorgeous flute or clarinet pairings – a Dvorak speciality; swathes of fine brass-playing (just two exposed glitches); a paradoxical aubade of cello, horn, flute and harp for the doomed Prince's crepuscular return; and the violins surpassing themselves, Rosenkavalier-style, for the melting moon-reminder that lulls us before the Prince's gloriously heraldic chorale.

Jayne Wilson's Rusalka (all wig and no face) packs a terrific, full-throated punch, yet never wholly woos us: soft passages are barely audible; her stance is too much a limp Lucia without the poignancy. The Prince (Cardiff- and Birmingham-trained David Watkin-Holmes) shed a flattish start to reveal a terrific tenor – the Prince's unlunar outbursts are the very reverse of the Watersprite's ominous woes ("Beda"). His death (sliding ingeniously down the cascade) caught the opera's tone perfectly. Surprise delights were Marie Vassiliou's icy Foreign Princess (the vocals felt galvanised every time she uttered) and Sarah Jillian Cox's boy Turnspit – sharp acting, a good mezzo voice, and paired triumphantly with Christopher Parke's finely sung Gamekeeper.

Roderic Dunnett

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