With Valery Gergiev performing in the later Prom, Saturday’s afternoon concert in the Cadogan Hall seemed a little like an appetiser.
It was therefore pleasing to see such a packed auditorium for this rather bizarre cacophony of Shostakovich’s film and theatre music, performed by the Britten Sinfonia.
The evening Proms this year may present a number of Shostakovich’s longer, more popular works, but here, the intimate setting of the Cadogan Hall was suited to these often obscure and surprising pieces.
Initially we seemed to be in for a rough ride. The conductor André de Ridder hobbled onstage on crutches and proceeded to deliver a tepid interpretation of the Jazz Suite No. 1. The piano accompaniment was too restrained in the Waltz, the woodwind lacked bite and both trombones and trumpets struggled with their part writing. Jacqueline Shave, first violin, seemed more involved, but her playing was spiky and overly theatrical.
Things improved tremendously in the next piece, an excerpt from the film New Babylon with the live orchestral accompaniment. The Sinfonia had doubled in number and delivered an intense rendition of the score. De Ridder’s conducting possibly lost its way in the slower passages, but at the climaxes he could not be faulted. The opening string storm seared through the hall, while the violent destruction of the city was thrillingly conveyed. The solo piano playing of Huw Watkins also created an admirable stillness on the platform.
The trend was then continued throughout the programme. The Five Fragments, Op. 42, are bizarre little pieces, but De Ridder seemed convinced by them. The string-based Moderato was surprisingly moving, even if the violins managed to spoil a viola melody with a terribly pitched high note. De Ridder’s conducting throughout the performance seemed assured, and the Sinfonia responded admirably.
They also were helped by a number of excellent soloists from the Mariinsky Theatre Academy of Young Singers, who performed in two items. The Tale of the Priest and his Worker, Balda is a ridiculous little thing, but the vocal writing is often amusing. Mikhail Latyshev‘s tenor was a tad muffled although his top range is admirable, while Eduard Tsanga as Balda was fine. In The Tale of the Silly Little Mouse, best of the bunch was Elena Gorshunova as Mrs Mouse, whose voice seemed easily projected and accurately used. Mezzo Elena Sommer as Auntie Duck perhaps lacked the lower range, but again she projected well.
If the concert was so musically commendable, then it really did seem a missed opportunity. If the video projection was relevant in both New Babylon and The Silly Baby Mouse, it is inconceivable why the orchestral piece The Bedbug was accompanied by an interminable montage of still photographs. They had nothing to do with the piece yet the orchestra was plunged into almost complete darkness to accommodate them. I doubt that I was the only one to find the orchestra’s playing more interesting than the irrelevant pictures. Again, frustration set in at the end of every piece, since this heralded the arrival of Petroc Trelawny and John Riley, analysing the composition that was to follow. Not only was their monotone discussion repeating what was already printed in the programme, but a number of times the orchestra had to wait patiently while they continued to talk, unaware that de Ridder was waiting with poised baton.
Sadly, these irritations damaged the concert. There were many fine moments the orchestral playing in New Babylon and the gleeful zaniness of The Silly Baby Mouse that stuck in the mind, while the playing, conducting and singing were all of a high quality. Thus, it was a shame that certain non-musical aspects conspired to limit complete enjoyment of the concert.