Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Workers and the State @ Royal Festival Hall, London

22 March 2018

Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre (Photo: Morley Von Sterberg)

The Soviet authorities’ ever-changing definition of what constituted ‘appropriate music’ still remains a mystery to unravel, but, for some odd reason, Reinhold Glière’s lush, tuneful compositions continually escaped being labelled ‘music of the bourgeoisie’ despite his writing style remaining constant whether he was metaphorically draped in the Imperial double-headed eagle or the hammer and sickle. Thursday night’s concert in the Southbank series ‘Voices of Revolution’ (an exploration of Russian composers’ different responses to the Soviet regime, all conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy) contained two of Glière’s delightful pieces: the individualistic Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra and the six-movement suite from his ballet The Red Poppy.

Nadezhda Gulitskaya (standing in for the sadly absent Ailish Tynan) took the lead in the concerto, and gave a fine demonstration of coloratura technique in the challenging second movement. The more lyric first movement, however, worked less well, as her voice below the stave has a steely quality that is not altogether pleasant, and some of the notes around the upper passaggio seemed forced (and occasionally went missing).

The first Soviet ballet The Red Poppy was a roaring success, and Glière created a suite from it, the final movement of which – Russian Sailors’ Dance – is a regular concert-filler. The whole suite, though, is full of exuberant and sumptuous music, often employing period Chinese musical tropes – pentatonic melodies, gongs, celesta, flutes and glockenspiels – such that, its style swerves between those of Serge Rachmaninov and Edward German, with touches of Frederic Norton’s Chu Chin Chow thrown in. Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia revelled in all of this, applying a consummate understanding of the charm and character of the work, whether it was for the startling, trumpeted quote from The Internationale in the opening movement, the romantic violin solos (given excellent accounts by Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay), or the Straussian waltz, hot-foot from a glittering ball at the Winter Palace, in the fifth movement.

The first half of the concert opened with Alexander Mosolov’s The Iron Foundry, a magnificent romp that is even more ‘machine-music’ than Honegger’s Pacific 231, and feels absolutely as though it should accompany a Soviet newsreel extolling the glories of the Motherland’s industrial advance. The horns (who stood for the occasion) give out a stirring ’hymn to labour’, underscored by toiling strings and a thumping, mechanical rhythm in the brass that almost prefigure minimalism. It’s a piece that is often talked of, but rarely performed, and it was a treat to hear it given an excellent account at the hands of professionals.

Sergei Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto – which closed the first half – is a difficult work to love wholeheartedly. Described once as ‘a riff on C major’, it gives the listener the impression that Prokofiev wrote it 50 bars at a time, coming back to the score in a different mood on each occasion. The Uzbek-born soloist Behzod Abduraimov, Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia between them, however, managed to weld its mercurial elements together into a highly satisfying performance, allowing the lyrical sections to shine, applying delicacy to the ‘fairy footsteps’ section at the end of the first movement, humour to the clumpy, off-beat piano motif in the second movement and the bassoon passage at the opening of the third movement, a yearning quality to the little gavotte in the second movement, and giving us some full-on Russian romanticism at the close of the work. Abduraimov’s playing was intense and concentrated, and he used not only considerable emotion, but a fearsome technique, which showed in full measure in the pyrotechnic passages for which the concerto is famous.

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Workers and the State @ Royal Festival Hall, London