Proms; Russian flair in slow-motion

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THERE IS a strong 20th century Russian flavour to the Proms at present, with large-scale works by Shostakovich and Prokofiev this weekend, and the British premiere of a major work by Sofia Gubaidulina on Monday. The season's "Power and Politics" theme helps account for this, but the opportunity to hear recent scores from a post-Soviet era operating under rules very different from those of the Socialist Realism that determined the course of Russian music for most of the century is very welcome.

Rodion Shchedrin, already in his sixties, is not as well known here as some of his contemporary compatriots, though his Old Russian Circus Music was performed at the Proms to some acclaim last year. Four Russian Songs for Symphony Orchestra, which received its world premiere on Friday, is the only Proms commission this year from a non-British composer. It is not a conventional song cycle with a vocal soloist, but, like Old Russian Circus Music, a concerto for orchestra, the fifth in a whole series.

This suggests the prudent skulduggery of a composer long familiar with ways of beating the Soviet system through hidden meanings. Something of that attitude seems to survive in Shchedrin's apparently rather free derivation of his material from earlier Russian sources: songs sung by blind wandering travellers to tell horses and people they were there; folk laments, Orthodox bell chimes, and Russian gypsy songs.

The results of all this were supposed to be extrovert. Four Russian Songs had some delightful moments of vivid orchestral flair, notably towards the end when a whole cacophony of chimes and bells was briefly let loose.

Shchedrin knows how to inflect an often simple, song-like melody plus accompaniment texture with flecks of other timbres: a bizarre high trumpet, for instance. Yet the whole thing had a rather subdued air, not by any means straightforwardly extrovert, but rather hanging fire, with too much of a heavy tread and all of it in basically the same slowish tempi.

The Ulster Orchestra, whose only Prom this was, now has the Russian violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky as its Principal Conductor. Too many instrumentalists assume the podium these days, impatient, one often thinks with playing careers already fully achieved. As a violinist Sitkovetsky has a reputation for brilliance coupled to an idiosyncrasy that can sometimes be captivating, but at other times appears to be merely attention-seeking.

The performance of Tchai-kovsky's "Fourth Symphony" had a few eccentricities: an enormous slowing-up just before the end of the first movement, for instance. In general though, and despite the fact that this orchestra is scarcely our most polished, it was well controlled - Sitkovetsky has a better stick technique than some soloists turned conductors - and rose to the occasion with some moments of real power.

In Berlioz's Les Nuits d'ete, Barbara Hendricks floated and coloured her line with consummate professionalism. But the distinctive character of each song remained barely grasped, and the total effect was in the end bland, due not least to the orchestra's rather flat-footed accompaniment.

This review appeared in some editions of Saturday's paper