Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LPO / Järvi @ Royal Festival Hall, London

28 October 2009

Scriabin’s early, rarely performed Piano Concerto and a truncated version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, arranged by Henk de Vlieger, are an odd but fascinating combo.

Southbank Centre

Royal Festival Hall (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

For all of their warped megalomania and narcissism both men were merely trying to entertain.

Neeme Jrvi conducted with awkward motions, and Yevgeny Sudbin was playing with more than a little help from the score placed flatly on the piano, but despite visual drawbacks the aural impression was arresting.

Alexander Scriabin’s music (both early and late) is vastly underrated, overshadowed by his odd beliefs and silly delusions. For example he believed that women should grow beards in order to avoid toothache, and he also openly claimed to be God. His later music (anything after opus 50) reflected those madcap ideas in harmony and form, but his early works are blissful and stormy in true Romantic proportions. The first movement of his Piano Concerto in F sharp drifts a like drowsy love potion, reaching its first climax in less than a minute and tumbling out its narrative in a giddy stream of lust.

The orchestra hadn’t fully warmed up till halfway through the 1st movement, when they delivered Scriabin’s aural poetry with a pulsating flexibility that exposed his trouser-led visions. The opening of the second movement could have been written to define exquisite sonority. Shameless, gorgeous yearning was brought out particularly by beautiful textures from the violas, swallowing the listener. This music is much closer to Tchaikovsky than to Chopin (as everybody seems happy to regurgitate), conductor Neeme Jrvi took it on as such and wallowed away. In the fiery third movement, pianist Yevgeny Sudbin made some odd decisions about where the melodic lines started and stopped, but his ideas were interesting and brought a new, if not wholly successful, angle to the work.

Condensing a fifteen-hour long opera into a one-hour hunk (without any singers) has its dangers- what’s to stop it becoming a high-class greatest hits karaoke night? Absolutely nothing. The audience had presumably all sat through millions recordings and thousands of performances of The Ring Cycle, and so this was a kind of reward for all those years of hard slog. It was all very amusing and to begin with, just listening out for the transitions, and waiting for favourite bits, but after the blistering percussion of Seigfreid’s smelting sword scene the novelty began to wear off.

Henk de Vlieger, who was responsible for the arrangement, relied far too heavily on large, unmodified chunks (particularly from Gotterdammerung), and so totally missed an opportunity to create something of real artistic merit. Hans Zender’s orchestration of Winterreise and Berio’s hacking and stitching of Mahler and Boulez to create Sinfonia sprang to mind as masterpieces in this field. In those cases the composers so loved the original music that they felt they had implicit permission to do whatever the hell they wanted with it, but de Vlieger was too timid. But it wasn’t the end of the world (no pun intended), since the original music is so theatrically gripping and intense, and Wagner stayed centre stage, unfettered.

Orchestral balance and poise were never in doubt, the strings were again full blooded, desperate (in a good way) and thrilling – only the offstage steerhorn was slightly dubious, but that’s forgivable of such an impossible instrument. As an encore Jrvi whipped out the Prelude from Act 3 from Lohengrin, and it was greedily received.

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