Proms: Familiarity breeds a note of discontent

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ALFRED SCHNITTKE, who died earlier this month, composed The Ritual in 1984, and its inclusion in the programme was in memorium. His friend and champion Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducted it and his compatriots - the St Petersburg Philharmonic - played it.

It wasn't much: two notes on a pilgrimage from the lowest lows to the highest highs, a mid-life crisis of identity marked out in one of those Gothic, organ-buttressed climaxes Schnittke loved so much.

But as the air, and with it the sounds, thinned and vapourised in the closing pages, glockenspiel and triangle playing catch with the same two notes as if marking time until one or other dropped the ball, the child in Schnittke once more concealed the adult.

The piece was composed to order - to commemorate the liberation of Belgrade 40 years previously - but somewhere in that cheekily indecisive ending was the last laugh.

Speaking of indecisive endings (and beginnings, for that matter), it once again does not say much for the casual indifference of Rozhdestvensky's conducting technique that an orchestra of the calibre of the St Petersburg Philharmonic should flounder so badly on basic matters of ensemble in a piece they live and breathe on an almost daily basis: Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet.

At last year's Proms, Valery Gergiev all but reinvented it with the "other" St Petersburg Orchestra - the Kirov. Rozhdestvensky, by contrast, took every bar for granted. That which is so familiar was too familiar, lacking fibre, drama, heat. Even those marvellously instinctive St Petersburg strings seemed reluctant to outreach themselves.

Puppet love fared better, the personable St Petersburg woodwinds claiming Stravinsky's Petrushka for their own. The solo flute effected a graceful mime, the contra-bassoon grunted flatulently and a bruiser of a trumpet strutted his stuff. Even the indiscretions were endearing.

Rozhdestvensky dispensed encouragement from the sidelines. But who was pulling his strings? Deliberate tempi sometimes make it harder, not easier, to articulate this music. Articulation and intonation were, somewhat embarrassingly, problematic for the maestro's son, Sasha Rozhdestvensky, in Pro-kofiev's Second Violin Concerto.

Should he have been there at all? Not at this level. He has too much work still to do - holding a tempo, defining rhythm, lending shape and purpose to the pyrotechnics, watching the pitch in those ecstatic high positions. I say ecstatic, but until his technical hitches are sorted (and even then I am not so sure the natural instincts are in place), such lofty pursuits will remain way beyond his reach.

Nothing, of course, is beyond the reach of Evgeny Kissin. As if to underline what it takes to be world-class, Kissin took the same composer, the same attitudes, the same wild and wonderful contradictions (and the same numeral - this was Piano Concerto No. 2), and made perfect musical sense of every last desperate demisemiquaver.

The fractured personality of the concerto assumed the distorted logic of a cubist self-portrait: Prokofiev the limpid lyricist, the mordant mechanical, the mighty industrialist.

To see and hear Kissin's right hand negotiate the tumultuous cascades of the first movement cadenza was to see and hear and not quite believe.

The orchestra sounded like a more disciplined and distinguished body under Yuri Temirkanov, but the St. Petersburg Philharmonic of old was only sporadically to be heard. Rimsky-Korsakov's Golden Cockerel Suite was absolutely in character, straight out of the story book. But our promenade around Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, as orchestrated by Ravel, was halting, to say the least - and not just on account of Temirkanov's ruinous respites between each of the earlier pictures.

His is an eccentric technique (at times a little like an aircraft safety demonstration) but not even that excuses the dodgy chording of the brass. So The Great Gate of Kiev was not so great after all.