Prom 39: BBC Symphony Orchestra / Slatkin, Royal Albert Hall, London

Adrian Jack
Saturday 25 January 2014 03:55
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Perhaps the point hasn't struck home that the Royal Albert Hall now has an air-cooling system, for the audience on a sweltering Sunday evening was surprisingly small. The attraction in a rather lightweight first half was the remarkable Greek-born violinist Leonidas Kavakos, the soloist in Ravel's Tzigane and Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen. Both are gypsy pieces, but Hungarian gypsy, though Sarasate was Spanish. What the hell: Sarasate's rhapsody is a corker as a piece of popular entertainment, with a sweetly nostalgic opening leading to a thrilling spin, and Kavakos played it brilliantly: neither indulgent nor sentimental, but disciplined, a 100 per cent secure, and discreetly stylish. The orchestral support was less of a problem than in the second half of Ravel's Tzigane, which is so capricious that the accompanist, whether a single pianist or a whole orchestra, has a hard time to keep up. I have never heard a violinist so secure in a live performance of this carefully contrived "improvisation", but the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin were a bit sloppy.

The concert began with a strange gloss, or rather deconstruction, on the ubiquitous Hispanic theme, in the untidy shape of the Russian Rodion Shchedrin's ballet suite based on Bizet's Carmen. It's scored for strings and percussion without any wind instruments, to what purpose isn't clear unless it's to make Bizet's original music shine by comparison, for Shchedrin's use of percussion is so incongruous – what do tubular bells and marimba do to evoke appropriate atmosphere? – as to be downright silly.

A kind of cheeky attitude to tradition survived in some Russian music even in the bad old days of Soviet suppression, and it's a distinctive feature of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony of 1944. As his most popular symphony after the early "Classical", it accommodates a neo-classical style to more epic dimensions. There's not as much harking back to Mahler as there is in Shostakovich, but the start of the Scherzo's Trio section is one striking instance. Prokofiev said he conceived his Fifth as "a symphony of the greatness of the human spirit" and Leonard Slatkin, conducting from memory, did a lot of gesturing that looked designed to interpret the music to the audience rather than inspire the players. Do orchestras really respond to pre-emptive miming anyway? The development sections seemed so interminable that you soon felt like shouting out, "Next shock, please!"

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