With its theme of bells, this concert represented a bold and imaginative piece of programme planning by the London Philharmonic. Metal chimes have a deeply meaningful place in Russian cultural history, and three of the four works presented here were UK premieres. Yet the quality of the music and its interpretation did not always live up to those high expectations.
The evening opened with Rodion Shchedrin’s The Chimes, a ‘concerto for orchestra’ first performed in 1968 by its commissioners, the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein. Although undeniably virtuosic, the work failed to move beyond a rapid series of mood swings and dramatic gestures. The inclusion of an array of church, tubular and hand bells felt like a tokenistic nod towards the title, and the final gunshot (repeatedly warned of by health-and-safety-conscious hall management) was a touch anticlimactic.
The already large LPO expanded further for Silentium, an early work by Nikolai Miaskovsky. First performed in Russia in 1911, this was its first airing in this country, and although it is no masterpiece, it does merit revisiting. Miaskovsky was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story Silence and penned a large-scale symphonic poem in the manner of Liszt. Conductor Vladimir Jurowski convincingly brought out the dominant themes of solitude and despair from his players, with some particularly memorable moments from clarinet and bass clarinet. The very fine LPO brass also proved their worth in the work’s stormy end section.
After the interval came another UK first — Bells in the Fog by Edison Denisov. Written in 1988 for the glasnost-era American-Soviet Youth Orchestra, it proved rather too studied and subtle to be a hit. The title was the starting point for a series of ever-more delicate arrangements clustered around the note A. Despite its delicacy, the short work never strayed far beyond its opening premise.
The three premiered works were really preludes for Rachmaninov’s masterpiece, The Bells. A choral symphony set again to words by Poe (in this case, a poem), the work calls for three singer soloists, plus massive choir, which on this occasion involved singers from the London Philharmonic Choir and the London Symphony Chorus. The performance as a whole was very good, but not great. Jurowski seemed a touch detached from the music’s passion and ethereality. The first ‘sleigh bells’ movement lacked light and jollity, and involved some lengthy settling in. Tenor Sergei Skorokhodov’s entry was virtually swamped by the full-on chorus. In the ensuing ‘wedding bells’, soprano Tatiana Monogarova perfectly captured the movement’s loving intensity. The third ‘alarm bells’ was not as wild as it could, or should, have been, and the final ‘funeral bells’ suffered from Vladimir Chernov’s rather light baritone. This was despite the beautifully plaintive cor anglais solo and some perfectly poised string playing.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk