Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Charities Philharmonia @ St John’s, Smith Square, London

4 December 2008

Another fantastic concert from Charities Phil- harmonia included two Russian masterpieces and a side order of Bartok.

As well as a star turn from Tamsin Waley-Cohen in Prokofiev’s early Violin Concerto, there was also a colossal and relentless performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

The evening began with Bartok’s Rhapsody No.1 for Violin and Orchestra. Tamsin Waley-Cohen poured sweetness into Bartok’s customary ragged, biting sound-world, also coaxing humour from the piece with a broad palate of muted and luminous tones.

Prokofiev’s 1st Violin Concerto was on another level, both as a piece and as a performance. Prokofiev seems to be wryly testing the violinist in the opening few bars: just how softly, how breathlessly can you play this? Waley-Cohen answered in a whisper. Prokofiev then starts on his narrative swoops and arcs (making Bartok’s melodies sound more like the flight path of a chicken), but for all the bravura and show-stopping electricity, Waley-Cohen manages to root her sound within the orchestra, never dominating it or overpowering it.

As conductor Michael Alexander Young was the perfect partner, tackling an awkward change of rhythm in the second movement with more elegance than most interpreters, and making the high and sparkling section glitter like a night sky in the countryside. A contrasting test for the violinist came next, and Waley-Cohen was on top of it again, this time with rough, rugged force. The orchestra lacked a little grandeur towards the end of the third movement, but made up for it in the dream-like finale.

In Stravinsky’s imposing masterpiece The Rite of Spring the conductor’s neck is constantly on the line, having to let the orchestra be wild and untamed at the same time as keeping a short leash on them for all of Stravinsky’s precise rhythmical inventions. The space at St John’s also became a factor; to begin with its relative intimacy leaving solo instruments sounding naked and at risk- heightening the urgency of this already knife-edge thriller- and later on, as the orchestra piled on the gusto, the volume almost became a physical threat.

As a fabricated myth (of the sacrifice of a virgin) The Rite of Spring has now become a legend in its own right, and sounds like one- unfolding like a ripping yarn and constantly introducing new characters, each one more sadistic than the last. Since the music doesn’t relate to itself as it goes on, the key to making this piece work is sheer momentum, the orchestra rode this desperate torrent and dared to take Stravinsky on at his most violent. There were a couple of moments that could have been more sinuous and pulsating, but the overall result was staggering and vivid.

The final word should go to Michael Alexander Young, a conductor who demonstrated that although this piece was written for a full ballet company, it can be danced by one.

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