Just four years separate these two works based on the Russian fairy tale of Kashchey the Immortal, yet the transition between the two is striking, from teacher Rimsky-Korsakov’s late Romantic harmonic explorations to Stravinsky’s latent rhythmic power. Both were vividly portrayed in this often thrilling Prom.
In comparison with Messiaen, Rimsky-Korsakov has been very much on the undercard at this year’s festival, with two performances against the French composer’s eighteen. This was the big chance for his music to make an impact, Kashchey performed in its entirety as the third one-act opera in this year’s Proms.
Under Vladimir Jurowski the performance was a triumph, though it was a victory hard won, with Rimsky’s characteristically colourful and pictorial music often shrouded in gloom and uncertainty, vividly portraying a snowstorm as the evil sorcerer Kashchey held his princess Galina captive. The title role, taken by tenor Vyacheslav Voynarovsky, began with a dramatic entry from the wings in response to the Princess, soprano Tatiana Monogarova, who had already introduced herself, floating effortlessly above the orchestra.
As the unbroken hour of music progressed the audience, too, were held captive by the interplay between the two main protagonists and the Prince (Pavel Baransky), a full-voiced evil daughter of the sorcerer, mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina, and the forceful role of the Storm Knight, given with gusto by bass Mikhail Petrenko.
Jurowski’s operatic sensibilities were fully evident, and the balance between soloists and orchestra was ideal, the exotic colours of the composer’s orchestration made clear in rich, often ambiguous harmonies, piquant brass fanfares and throaty lower strings. The BBC Singers, briefly pressed in to action, were particularly impressive in the exultant final chorus.
Jurowski stood modestly at the back of the stage as his singers took their bow, yet assumed total control for Stravinsky’s take on the tale, his first ballet for Diaghilev. Just a flick of the wrist from the conductor was enough to change direction, to usher in another episode of this brilliantly scored music, the excellent London Philharmonic fully attuned with their conductor.
Unfortunately the restless audience seemed intent on dissipating the tension of the opening, feather light pages, though failed to destroy the tense atmosphere as Jurowski gradually unleashed the full power of the orchestra. Even the weather was a dramatic prop, the rain hammering on the Royal Albert Hall dome as the performance gathered itself, ahead of a coruscating Infernal Dance.
At last, in the Profound Darkness at the end of Scene One, total stillness arrived, save for the string tremolos, shivering restlessly under the conductor’s watchful eye until the crescendo towards the end, one of the most thrilling experiences in all 20th century music.
It was no surprise to find it expertly paced by Jurowski, and in this performance and programme he illustrated the extent by which he should be treasured in London musical life. He is still taken for granted – but only he could have devised this programme and seen it performed with this level of attention to detail and vivacity.