Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Philharmonia and Frank Dupree review – Kapustin’s piano concerto and Russian classics

7 March 2024

Santtu and the orchestra bring an unusual fusion of Russia, jazz and Spain to the South Bank.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali & Philharmonia

Santtu-Matias Rouvali & Philharmonia (Photo: Sisi Burn)

Other than an adoption of ideological and political views by the International Brigades in the 1930s, a connection between Spain and Russia isn’t necessarily one that you’d make, but two 19th century Russian composers – Mikhail Glinka and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov – were fascinated enough by the rhythms and harmonies of ‘the Spanish sound’ to write pieces encapsulating this. Indeed, Glinka – ever the internationalist – went so far as to move to Valladolid to study guitar music.

One might see Glinka’s Capriccio brillante and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol as exotic orchestral vignettes full of stereotypical writing; while this may be true, they are both joyful pieces that are easy to love, and to place them at either end of Thursday evening’s concert at the Royal Festival Hall was an adroit move in terms of the capture of audience mood. The Philharmonia, under the lithe yet exacting direction of Santtu-Matias Rouvali, set about both of them with exuberance, flair, and castanet intensity set to ‘torrid’. The overblown grandeur of Glinka’s introductory passage was given suitable portentousness, and the subsequent waltz for strings and harp delivered with an impressively precise delicacy at breakneck speed. The various appearances of the ‘Alborada’ dance that punctuate Rimsky-Korsakov’s work were finely contrasted for timbre – skirling clarinets and pulsing percussion against pizzicato violins and a triangle The charm of the lilting ‘’Variazioni’ continued from the warm horns and low-string throb all the way through to the full-throated iteration for full orchestra, and ‘Scena e canto gitano’ was beautifully judged for dynamic and textural diversity, from the ghostly opening violin solo (played with a sense of quiet passion by Concert Master Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay) to the brassy fanfares announcing the final whirl of the splendidly immoderate ‘Fandango asturiano’.

The first of the more substantial pieces in the programme was Nikolai Kapustin’s 5th Piano Concerto, composed in 1993 and enjoying its UK première. Kapustin’s music has emerged from obscurity in recent years: born in Ukraine of Jewish stock, Kapustin trained at the Moscow Conservatoire during the Soviet era, this interesting background making an attraction to American jazz stylings seem somewhat unlikely. But jazz is very much the idiom of this single-movement concerto which might be seen as a similar composition to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Rouvali and the orchestra were joined, for the concerto, by Frank Dupree, whose crossover career (as well as being a classical pianist, chamber musician and orchestral conductor, he also plays in his own jazz trio) made him the ideal soloist.

“…the orchestra demonstrated, once again, their aptitude for telling a musical story through well-managed shifts in dynamic, tempo and texture”

Frank Dupree

Frank Dupree (Photo: Ralph Steckelbach)

Whether the work is a true concerto is a moot point; certainly, it is a piece for piano and orchestra, but structure is hardly the composer’s byword – it’s a piece full of mercurial whimsy where 1920s jazz age gives way to boogie-woogie then cool groove then Latin, then blues – each musical idea briefly emerging, only to be replaced by the next “oh, this’d be great” thought. It is, however, a huge amount of fun to listen to, and full marks go to Rouvali and the orchestra for their ability to ride this musical roller coaster and not only give it some sense of direction, but to take these swerves in style – busy syncopations, jagged chords, jazz slides, sudden slowing into lush strings, smoky passages for muted trumpets and brushed snares, a burst of 1960s lounge music or a chase sequence from a 1970s cop drama – and throw themselves into the character of each at the blink of an eye. Needless to say, Dupree’s account was utterly brilliant; it’s a fiendish part, calling for not only virtuosity but considerable stamina (those busy runs and furious hammering passages!), and his lengthy cadenza (even this is odd – it seems to come in two parts either side of a short orchestral riff) was a masterpiece of agile playing and a sure understanding of idiom. The subsequent encore – for which Dupree played both piano and bongos, and was joined by a small group of percussion players (including Rouvali) and a bassist – sent the audience off to the interval with some seriously hot Latin vibes.

Borodin’s second symphony might be thought of as the composer’s ‘Avengers Assemble’. Its inspiration is Russian legend, and it opens with a musical portrayal of a gathering of mythic warriors of ancient folklore – whose stomping about can be heard in the galumphing musical motif that pervades the opening movement. Although Rouvali took the symphony at a relatively sprightly pace, he and the orchestra demonstrated, once again, their aptitude for telling a musical story through well-managed shifts in dynamic, tempo and texture. The migrations, in the first movement, from the solid motif (orchestrated in several different ways) to light and airy or sunny and lush were artfully handled; the pecking woodwind in the scherzo transformed seamlessly into one of Borodin’s characteristically tuneful passages for the same instruments; the syncopations of the alternating duple and triple times of the Slavic dances in the final movement were full of energy, and were elegantly contrasted with the sweet little woodwind lines and the sonorous melody in the low brass. The third movement, though, gave a chance for expansiveness, and the orchestra revelled in it, from the opening harp and clarinet to the glorious yearning moments for horns – both solo (Ben Hulme) and chorus.

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