Alexander Shelley: ‘Sandwiches’ of Prokofiev and Sibelius

October at Cadogan Hall sees the start of a fascinating series of four concerts under the baton of Alexander Shelley, the RPO’s Principal Associate Conductor. Called Symphonic Soundscapes, the series pairs those giants of twentieth-century music, Jean Sibelius and Sergei Prokofiev.

One Finnish, the other Russian – you’d think Finlandia, Sibelius’ famous cry for freedom from Russian oppression, would rule out this musical pairing at a stroke. Not so, says Shelley.

“I always look to find interesting connections between composers and historical eras,” he says. “In my most recent Paris to New York series with the RPO, I was keen to explore the connections between composers in New York and Paris; to illuminate the cross-fertilisation between musical styles that was going on in the 1920s.

“With Symphonic Soundscapes, I’m looking to do something similar but a little bit different, too: in essence, to show how both composers started from similar points but, like the great composers before them, went on to develop their own styles. I want to trace the unfolding of their unique voices.”

Cadogan audiences are in for a treat with the four concerts that make up the series. Each features three works arranged, like a particularly tasty sandwich, with two works by one composer placed either side of the other. So, for example, in the first concert, on Tuesday 25 October, Sibelius ‘bookends’ Prokofiev; his haunting Swan of Tuonela opening the evening, followed by Prokofiev’s thrilling and refreshing Piano Concerto No.3, and closing with Sibelius’ gloriously romantic and soul-bearing Symphony No.2.

“I like to create these ‘sandwiches’ in concerts,” says Shelley. “You get a taste of one composer in the first work and then a different perspective on them with the next piece by a different composer that somehow cleanses your palette, and so the concert unfolds.”

Shelley believes Sibelius’ symphonies show his emotional and musical development, a compositional progress that mirrors Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms.

“He took the material he wanted to express and did so in the most efficient means possible, developing his style with each successive work. His Symphony No.7 [Sunday 29 January at 3pm; please note the special time] is iridescent but merely a step on that journey.”

With Prokofiev, too, Shelley traces a musical journey that begins with the Symphony No.1, ‘Classical’, on Wednesday 25 January.

“The ‘Classical’ shows Prokofiev was comfortable with symphonic form, but then later in the series we hear how he took that same form in a new direction. Both composers’ lives overlapped but we hear how they take the symphony in very different directions.”

Shelley is fascinated by the juxtaposition of each composer’s different musical voice. There’s Sibelius’ Nordic voice; one that’s connected to the Austro-German tradition but different (“It’s why German audiences are not so receptive to his music but we Brits are,” says Shelley).

And then there’s Prokofiev’s.

“Prokofiev is more pointed and acute, where Sibelius is more linear and horizontal. They set up fabulous contrasts.”

Hear these contrasts during the four concerts that make up the series in works including Sibelius’ Violin Concerto and Tapiola, and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.5.

Among the fine soloists appearing in the Symphonic Soundscapes series is Chinese violinist Ning Feng, performing Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.1 (29 January). Shelley is a huge admirer.

“I first conducted Ning in Melbourne, in 2007. It’s always a happy reunion when we meet. He joins our other three great soloists in the series, pianist Anna Fedorova (25 October), violinist Chloë Hanslip (25 January) and Vadym Kholodenko (30 March). Cadogan Hall is a lovely, intimate forum in which to hear familiar and not so familiar soloists.”

Great soloists and a great orchestra, too. Fresh back from touring Korea with the RPO, Shelley says his relationship with the Orchestra grows stronger with each concert.

“It’s all going beautifully. We’re building mutual trust and developing repertoire. Cadogan Hall is where we both go on a musical journey and I hope the audience will join us as we explore the music of Sibelius and Prokofiev.” 

Written by John Evans

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