April 14, 2013

Russian Resplendence – A Review


13 April 2013
Leeds Town Hall

Featuring the great Russian works of Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky — and conducted by a Russian guest conductor too —  the programme itself was a sure crowd-puller. The only question was, how would an English orchestra play this programme?

Conductor Mikhail Jurowski made his way onstage with two sticks he depended very much on – a walking stick and a baton. A flick of the wrist, and the Orchestra of Opera North was off at breakneck speed; the high winds playing trills and a tri-tone motif over screeching strings and stormy percussion. Sounding stark and primitive, they conjured the ominous setting of a witches’ gathering, which built up to the frenzied dans macabre and simmered to a peaceful close in Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1886 arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain.

Continuing on from the pounding rhythms of Mussorgsky was Prokofiev’s third piano concerto, the most popular and critically acclaimed out of the five which he had written. 23-year old Jiayan Sun returned to Leeds for this performance, having won the third prize in the Leeds International Piano Competition last year with his rendition of Prokofiev’s second piano concerto. He had a dignified air about him as he took a bow and readied himself at the piano; very different from the nervous-looking and almost impatient competitor at the competition last September. The aggression had also been refined into a steely resolve, and he combined flawless technique with utmost control, shading different tone colours and bringing out melodies hidden within the copious amount of notes he had to play. The role of the orchestra in this concerto was not mere accompaniment but a participant in its own right, and at times even a ‘duelling partner’, especially in the third movement. There was a moment of slight asynchrony in the third movement, but it was dazzling all the same.

Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony is similar to Beethoven’s fifth symphony in that both begin in a minor key, deal with the subject of fate, and end triumphantly in a major key. The beauty of this symphony lies in the intimate inner movements — a heartfelt horn call that is a love song, later joined by the clarinet in a tender duet, and the waltz reminiscent of a pastorale scene — which in turn, give the outer movements their exuberance. As always, the musicians were given the space to express themselves during solos (which they did exquisitely, shaping every phrase), before ending with a truly spectacular finale.

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