First Night: Flat feet tread on pure notes

The Proms Albert Hall, London
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THERE'S 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 yesterday, 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 series.

This suggests the prudent skulduggery of a composer long familiar with ways of beating the Soviet system through hidden meanings.

The results of all this were supposed to be extrovert. And Four Russian Songs had some delightful moments of vivid orchestral flair, notably towards the end when a 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 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 with an idiosyncrasy that can sometimes be captivating, but, at others, merely attention-seeking.

The performance of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony had a few eccentricities: an enormous slowing-up just before the end of the first movement, for instance. In general, 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 moments of real power.

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

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