Prom 19: BBC Philharmonic / Sinaisky Prom 20: Jose Merce, Royal Albert Hall, London

Robert Maycock
Thursday 21 November 2013 04:05
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The season's bizarre inverted Spanish theme, in which Iberian tourism outweighs the music of Spain itself, reached a climax in Saturday: piano music by Albéniz, orchestrated out of existence by a Russian. Rodion Shchedrin's Two Tangos are Andalusian tangos, melancholy lilting pieces more innocent than the steamy sort from Argentina. Doleful bassoon and oboe, overlapping violins, a clarinet straight out of Rachmaninov, immediately rehoused the music thousands of miles north.

Vassily Sinaisky, conducting the BBC Philharmonic, encouraged expansive phrasing that reinforced the dislocation. Delicate, fanciful, and quietly virtuosic, the pieces were played with sympathy. A growing sense that they were an act of plunder was confirmed by the unwarranted final gesture, a loud, gruesome and incomplete cadence like a musical thumb-to-nose, which left a bad taste.

That's enough Spain, then, and the rest of the programme was Russian mainstream with an outstanding solo performance. The violinist Ilya Gringolts trained in St Petersburg and the Juilliard forcing-house in New York, and now he is on the BBC's plug list of "New Generation Artists". He has made these incompatibles into a creative synthesis, in which the calm and direct musicality that goes down well in Britain meets a virtuoso technique that can push the pace without forcing the tone.

Playing the First Violin Concerto by Shostakovich, he gave a wonderfully connected quality to the upsurge of passion that usually comes upon the opening meditation like a bout of bad temper. The sardonic scherzo-like music had plenty of light and shade, and while the cadenza reached a spectacular peak and the finale outran it in brilliance, the violin still had time to sing. But why didn't Gringolts memorise the piece? Sticking your head in the score looks dismissive of the audience.

Detailed, precision support from the orchestra set the tone for the Rachmaninov Symphony No 2. This is the ultimate Romantic symphony, a luscious tune every five minutes, yet all tightly organised. It can be devastatingly intense. Sinaisky began soaked in gloom and took the introduction to a pitch of emotion that would be hard to follow. And he didn't. Much of the rest was quick, light and flexible. Its urbane vitality and spontaneity recalled Rachmaninov's piano playing rather than the usual orchestral tradition, but except for an underplayed climax in the slow movement, it brought together excitement and affection in an absorbing whole.

For intensity, you needed to be back at 10pm for the flamenco Prom. José Mercé, current top dog in Spain, brought a small backing group to perform a mix of the unvarnished stuff and the "open flamenco" that he sees as the successor to the "new flamenco" fusions of the last two decades. The hall is a bombastic space for music that grew up in small rooms, but it works for chamber music because it creates an arena-like focus on the platform. The same goes for one powerful, improvisatory singer with his guitarist.

The more relaxed, fixed-pace music in the second part came from Mercé's hit album Aire. A touch unvaried: plenty to catch the interest, with harmonies from jazz and Latin America, but the contemporary element felt half-and-half, the instrumental colour from keyboard and drums quite plain. Short measure, too, with a late start and an early finish. There are more exciting takes on flamenco around, such as the work of Estrella Morente, who has roots in the tradition but risks more and gains more.

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