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Reviews

12 Sep 2019

Prom 69: Elena Stikhina’s auspicious UK debut in a dazzling Czech Philharmonic concert

Rarely can any singer have made such an unforgettable UK debut in just twelve minutes of music. That was unquestionably the case with the Russian soprano, Elena Stikhina, who in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin, sang with such compelling stage magnetism and with a voice that has everything you could possibly want.

Prom 69: Czech Philharmonic conducted by Semyon Bychkov

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Elena Stikhina (soprano)

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

 

For a soprano who has already sung Brünnhilde (in Siegfried) and is about to take on Norma, there were many assumptions to make about the kind of voice Stikhina might have; none were actually founded in fact. Everything about this performance suggested a thorough grounding in the role’s youthfulness, innocence, and romantic instincts. It was almost unbearable to hear Tatyana’s soul being displayed with such depth; it was if every novel, every chapter and paragraph of a book ever written were being narrated by Stikhina with heartrending insight. What was so unusual about this Letter Scene wasn’t just the careful attention to detail (and the impeccable Russian), it was that you felt she was writing the letter as it happened. Less the vast monologue it often is, it was a gripping and believable performance of time and place which was of the moment.

The voice itself is extraordinarily beautiful and rather wide in what it can do. It has the creaminess of Janowitz yet that rather mezzo-like, shadowy appeal of Ludwig; in a sense it’s febrile, like a molten furnace embracing dark embers from the middle of the chest, right up to a rock-solid spiralling high register that is crystalline. The vibrato is controlled with unwavering precision. Her stage presence is such that she lives the role of Tatyana - and I imagine everything else she sings. She completely charmed a capacity audience, just as she managed to persuade Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic to follow every instinct of a performance that was as sublime as it was utterly incomparable.

The concert had opened with very familiar Czech fare - Smetana. The Overture, and Three Dances to The Bartered Bride fizzed with that unique blend of infectiousness and rustic brilliance which only a Czech orchestra can muster. That reedy woodwind sound, the rather bright brass is never a surprise from this orchestra; what did prove a revelation was the astonishing richness of the strings, particularly a cello section which really left me wondering if there is a finer one anywhere in the world.

One can imagine the work after the interval - Shostakovich’s searing Eighth Symphony - with its distinctive Soviet implications (even though it is markedly differently in tone from the Seventh) - being a touch unsettling for a Czech orchestra. The performance we heard actually suggested it might have been because I have rarely heard one in which the angst, tragedy and eruptions of sound were so visceral. This is indeed a symphony which is marked out by climaxes of terrifying power, and the Czech Philharmonic did not hold back in the slightest. Hard sticks on the timpani were mighty, and scarcely refrained from making an impact which was monumental. Yet, could one have asked for a more bittersweet, more serene cor anglais solo played over lamenting tremolo strings than the mercurial one we heard here? I very much doubt it. But when one heard those grinding climaxes against clarinet and flute duets the dichotomy of a symphony which is always in conflict with itself simply put into focus an orchestra which has an exceptional ability to display itself as a body of craftsmen rather than instrumentalists.

Semyon Bychkov tends towards a more aggressive slant in Shostakovich - a Tenth with the Orchestre de Paris in the 1990s at the Proms was a vividly wild performance - and he coaxed some very grim playing from his Czech players in the central movements of this Eighth. There were great slabs of darkness from the strings, a toccata in the Allegro non troppo that stuttered and grinded like machinery in a great industrial iron foundry; trumpets blazed through the orchestra like gun fire. Those climaxes which seemed to come from nowhere in this symphony were horrific in their power and then just collapsed; in the final movement you felt the weight of the bows against cellos and basses would break their strings.

This was a performance of such magnitude, a gripping brilliance and played with devastating power, that Bychkov was able to hold off applause for a significant amount of time. It really was that exhausting for conductor, orchestra and audience. But this had been an exceptional Prom in every way. Without a doubt the highlight of this year’s season for me.

Marc Bridle

Elena Stikhina (soprano), Semyon Bychkov (conductor), Czech Philharmonic.

Royal Albert Hall, London; Tuesday 10th September 2019.

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