This was the second concert in the series ‘Symphonic Soundscapes: The Music of Prokofiev and Sibelius‘ being presented by Alexander Shelley and the RPO at Cadogan Hall. As in the previous concert (review) Shelley introduced the works from the stage and drew attention to the role Prokofiev and Sibelius had in helping to forge the national identities of their respective countries following the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Prior to the concert, the RPO and Cadogan Hall announced their collaboration with Octava which is a digital app which delivers programme notes to audiences’ mobile devices during concerts. The information is made available at the exact point in the performance when it is most pertinent and it describes key features of the piece, interesting points about orchestration and so on. I decided to try out the Octava app but I also had a copy of the published programme for reference. Octava was very well synchronised with the performance with the pertinent information appearing at just the right moment. I found it particularly useful during the performance of the Prokofiev C minor Symphony and was impressed with the clever way in which it illuminated key features of the piece and made this rather astringent music seem much more accessible. Having said that, I had a technical glitch with the app in the first half – which was admittedly mostly down to me and my lack of IT know-how! It would be useful for the concert organisers to give precise and reasonably detailed instructions on how to use the app prior to future performances to minimise the risk of this happening. For the record I should say that the published programme notes were also very good although I noticed a few typos: both the Prokofiev symphonies were listed as Op25 and Prokofiev’s dates were incorrectly recorded, all of which goes to show that no system is foolproof.

In the last concert in the series I was struck by some of the new and invigorating ideas Shelley and the RPO brought to Prokofiev’s music. With that in mind, I was a little disappointed with their performance of the ‘Classical’ Symphony. The first movement was admirably clear and Shelley ensured the exchanges were tight and well coordinated. However, this was a very safe performance and I slightly missed the zest and sparkling ebullience which can so enliven this music. There was some very well executed playing from the strings and woodwind in the Larghetto although the playing was a little too formal and constricted for my taste. The third movement Gavotte was the best of the four movements with Shelley and his orchestral partners doing a magnificent job highlighting Prokofiev’s subversive sense of parody. The strings and woodwind did well in the bustling figurations of the finale and the unfettered exuberance of the music shone through as Shelley and the RPO brought the work to its sparkling conclusion.

Chloë Hanslip was the soloist in the Sibelius Violin Concerto and her arrival led to a step change in the performance level. Sibelius was a gifted violinist himself and had a complete understanding of the instrument’s technical capabilities. The Violin Concerto is a technically demanding work and it has been a vehicle for many great violinists (I particularly like Ferras and Kavakos). Hanslip has a prodigious technique and she showed that she was fully up to the Olympian demands of the work. The opening of the concerto was magical as Hanslip produced a sensuous, beautifully shaded melody against a murmuring string accompaniment. Her intonation was perfect and I was struck by the way in which she really seemed to dig into the strings of her Guarneri del Ges to create a wonderful sense of yearning. The elements of gypsy fire were also there and the cadenzas were dispatched with complete technical assurance. Shelley and the RPO provided a sympathetic and flexible accompaniment and the balance of sound was excellent throughout. I loved the dark colours and some of the brooding, pulsating sounds they created. There was one minor ragged moment just at the start of the coda but orchestra and soloist quickly overcame this and brought fire and passion to the final section of the movement.

The tempo for the Adagio second movement seemed spot on to me with orchestra and soloist investing the material with weight and depth while at the same time allowing the luscious Romantic melodies to flow. The opening woodwind entries set the scene perfectly before Hanslip entered with an achingly beautifully melody. She plumbed the emotional depths of the music in a highly charged, poignant way and her exchanges with the strings became a heady love song. The finale – famously described as a polonaise for polar bear by Tovey – was taken at a blistering pace. Hanslip for the most part dispatched the ferocious technical difficulties with gusto while bringing vibrancy to Sibelius’ jaunty dance rhythms. Overall, this was a first rate performance and a great way to end the first half of the concert.

Prokofiev’s C minor Symphony shows the composer at his most acerbic and uncompromising which probably explains why it is not performed as often as some of his other works. The music is taken from his opera, The Fiery Angel which juxtaposes a rather touching love story with themes of sexual obsession, demonic possession and religious fanaticism. The symphony does not follow a particular programme but is absolute music that follows its own internal logic.

Shelley and the RPO seemed much more engaged with this work than the earlier ‘Classical’ Symphony and gave a high octane performance. The work opened in climactic fashion with cymbals, harps and bells creating jarring dissonances before we moved into the chant-like opening theme. The lower brass and woodwind injected elements of menace while woodwind, strings and percussion brought a spikiness to Prokofiev’s more martial music. Shelley ensured the sometimes very dense textures remained admirably clear and he navigated the RPO well through the complex structure. The Andante second movement radiated calm before eerie violin glissandi ushered in some of the composer’s more disquieting effects. The RPO’s leader, Duncan Riddell, played the violin solos beautifully, evoking innocence against a sinister backdrop. The music in the third movement is the stuff of nightmares and it received a first rate performance here. I was particular impressed with the way in which the RPO’s strings were able to create such an unsettling effect with their eerie glissandi while bass drum and brass ratcheted up the tension and threat. The finale is marked Andante mosso and the music gradually builds and accelerates until it reaches a violent climax. The RPO did a magnificent job projecting the power and uncompromising nature of the music. Shelley allowed the dramatic tension to build until the final series of jarring discords took us into the abyss.

Overall, this was a first rate concert featuring some very fine performances from conductor, soloist and orchestra. I hope the series will continue to move from strength to strength.

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