02 Aug 2011

BBC Prom 21

From the bombastic sweeps of Richard Strauss’ Don Juan, to the blissful rhapsodies of Walton’s Violin Concerto, and through the rhythmic surges of Prokofiev’s choral manifesto of socialist realism, conductor Andris Nelsons fizzed — indeed, almost exploded with energy and zest — and inspired clarity, control and freshness from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, on this their only visit to the Proms this season.

Straddling the interval were the two main works by Prokofiev and Walton. Having re-settled in Russia in 1936, Prokofiev subsequently made two concert tours to the West, and it was the second of these to USA in 1938 which took him to the studios of Hollywood to study film music techniques. Two years later, he was to make superb use of his observations in his collaboration with film maker, Sergey Eisenstein, for the director’s celebrated film Alexander Nevsky, from which Prokofiev later drew his dramatic cantata.

Made at the height of Stalin’s Terror, the film, essentially a piece of anti-Nazi propaganda, relates the victory of medieval prince of Novgorod over Teutonic crusaders in a battle on the frozen Lake Chud. Prokofiev had experience of such ‘populist’ commemorative works, designed to promote Stalinist policy, having composed in 1936-7 the mammoth Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, to texts by Marx, Lenin and Stalin. The work marshalled 500-strong forces to parade the message of socialist realism. However, the composer was accused of ‘vulgarity’, and had perhaps been na├»ve in choosing texts of such ideological significance, and it was not performed until many years later; that said, its structure, built-up of ten large sections, reveals a strong sense of dramatic form which enriches Alexander Nevsky.

Prokofiev’s move to Russia, after years in the USA and Paris, marked the beginning of his enforced isolation from Western classical music, if only because of the disappearance of such ‘progressive’ music from Russian concert programmes, by order of the Stalinist regime. Any work which adopted a conspicuously ‘western’ approach risked being condemned as ‘formalistic’, but in this cantata Prokofiev never lapses into the bombastic bluster which characterised so many ‘socialist realism’ scores, creating instead a sincere idiom which draws on the modality and form of Russian folk-song, in the manner of Mussorgsky. Eisenstein’s decision to adapt the narrative style of the Russian epic form bylina both reflected the archaic origins of the tale and provided the composer with an appropriate musical framework.

Mussorgsky’s influence is evident throughout the score, most poignantly perhaps in penultimate movement, ‘Field of the Dead’, in which a young girl laments as she seeks the living among the lifeless bodies. Here, Russian mezzo-soprano Nadezhda Serdiuk, projected a warm, sincere sound projected throughout the cavernous hall. Poised in grief, her phrases were eloquently shaped and sustained.

The CBSO also summoned up medieval worlds in the opening movement, ‘Russia under the Mongolian Yoke’, where sparse textures and extremes of register evoked the austerity of a long-distant past. The quasi-folk style continued in the ‘Song of Alexander Nevsky’, which introduced the vibrant CBSO chorus in resolute style. Although rather too refined and polished to suggest a truly Russian or Slavonic force, here and in ‘Arise, Russian People’ they built to an astonishing heroic might, one complemented elsewhere by melancholic string playing which painted the chill of the icy landscape, the desolation of the suffering people, and the apprehension before the ensuing battle.

In ‘The Battle on the Ice’, Prokofiev evokes the trials and triumphs of the battlefield. The longest of Nevsky’s seven movements, its filmic roots are evident in the episodic structure; here, Nelsons control of pace was masterly. Brutal repetitive rhythms, vigorous ‘cello playing, dazzling brass flourishes, and wildly cascading strings and woodwind brought the skirmishes of battle to life, both its joys and tribulations. The colourful percussive finale, as the victorious Nevsky enters Pskov, was electrifying.

Commissioned by Jascha Heifetz, Walton’s Violin Concerto is an odd mixture of sensuous, indulgent lyricism and extravagant technical virtuosity. An unusual combination of objective modernist form with deeply Romantic expression, throughout the three movements melancholic dreaming yields without warning to angry, even spiteful, eruptions. Japanese American violinist, Midori, began introspectively — and there were some inequalities of balance — her quiet reveries building to a broader lyricism in the arching song-like melodies of the opening Andante tranquillo. Tiny, hunched forward, she unleashed astonishing outbursts of energy. The exuberant, quicksilver Italianate scherzo, Presto capriccioso alla napolitana, revealed a playful brilliance, as soloist and orchestra danced through a tarantella and ironic mock-waltz. The horn melody in the central trio, canzonetta, was suitably dreamy, before the Neapolitan folksong was passed to the solo violin whose ethereal harmonics climbed ever higher.

The canzonetta theme is transformed into a march-like melody for final Vivace, a dramatic polyphonic dialogue between soloist and orchestra alternating with tender, ardent melodies, and here soloist and orchestra presented a brilliant display of technical dexterity and masterly musicianship, united in purpose and execution.

Nelsons’ innate feeling for orchestral colour and pace was also apparent in the two works by Richard Strauss which framed the concert. The CBSO relished the exquisite textures and timbres of Don Juan, revelling in the tender delicacy and lush richness which express the youthful Strauss’ own life and loves. Nelsons, despite his unceasing animation, kept a tight reign on proceedings, perfectly controlling the subdued, minor key close which denies the audience, and the eponymous ‘hero’, a concluding sense of joy and ‘victory’. There was some superb solo playing from the principal woodwind, especially oboist Rainer Dutch, whose exquisite tone and shaping of phrase were a delight. Virtuosic feats from the enlarged orchestra continued in the slinky ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, effectively a flamboyant orchestral encore to a consummate evening of music-making.

Claire Seymour