Stravinsky’s journeys: the first part of ‘roaring through Paris’ makes a splash

Originally published in March 2018 at Art Around the Globe

Vasily Petrenko/LPO (23 and 28 February 2018, soloists: Brantelid and Krylov), Brabbins/RCM Symphony Orchestra/Singers from Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory

Three very interesting concerts exploring the collaboration of LPO and Royal College of Music with Russian (and European) soloists and conductors starting the second part of LPO’s ‘Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey’ project. It continued to explore Stravinsky’s multiple influences, showing how indeed he was the one embracing so many different sources (from fairytales, Russian folk songs and Greek myths to music of Pergolesi) in creation of his music. The choice of pieces also revealed interconnections between Stravinsky and the earlier maitres of Russian 19th century music: Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovksy. By the fact of inclusion of three choral pieces and several pieces that were originally conceived for a ballet, the evenings also revealed how flexible the composer was in making music for different channels and media of human expression. Indeniably, the ballet music is linked in our conscience to Stravinsky’ collaboration with Dyagilev, but the pieces chosen (‘Les Noces’ and ‘Pulcinella Suite’) were in fact in the end re-invented as separate pieces and it is their independent musical content shown off in a symphonic interpretation that stood out during these performances.

The program of 23rd February had a specific ‘fairytale’ theme and had Stravinsky’s symphonic poem ‘The Song of the Nightingale’ (1917) at the start and Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite ‘Sheherezade’ (1888) in the end, with a lyrical and tender Elgar’s cello concerto (1918-19) performed by Andreas Brantelid positioned between them. All three pieces were very lyrical and stream-lining certain orchestral instruments for song-like passages. In ‘The Song of Nightingale’ LPO’s principal flautist Juliette Bausor and principal trumpeter Paul Beniston wonderfully impersonated musical lines of the nightingale and the fishermen respectively, having a sort of a competition in the poetical qualities of the delivery of their respective tunes. It shows Stravinsky’s attention to melodies and narratives (to be avoided at later stages of his career) still there and in line with Russian romantic tradition of his St Petersburg years, as a spectacularly beautiful and majestic suite by Rimsky-Korsakov showed.

Credits: Bo Mathisen

This last part of the evening was where conductor Vasily Petrenko, who is currently holding a position both at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, shined the most. Petrenko has a very artistic way of conducting, with his shoulders and hands and his whole body reflecting the changes in the tempi and different phrases and themes of the piece. With Scheherezade giving plenty of room for our imaginations and spreading wonderful visions distinctively over various instruments of the orchestra, Vasily almost impersonated a magician whose stick turns the pages of the book for us and makes us see its writing receiving shape and form. He waved to harps, indicated his wishes to bassoons and oboes, asked for power from trombones and trumpets, and was constantly on the lookout for a new instrument to weave into the spiderweb of beauty he was creating with LPO musicians. The overall result was a complete trance where the audiences went afterwards, with a feeling of indeed being transported to a fairyland – everyone had visions of their own, but I remembered Ilya Repin’s painting where the gusli player Sadko enters the underwater world, with his eyes wide with astonishment. Still holding an after-taste of a beautiful Elgar concerto performed by Andreas Brantelid, we were indeed saturated with songs and melodies of that evening, and our minds overflowed to several minutes of applause and delights expessed and shared afterwards.

The second concert in Stravinsky series was part of LPO and RCM collaboration and saw the invited young singers from Moscow joining in the celebration of Stravinsky’s music. Here one could obviously see how the composer, while still in Russia, was immersing himself in Russian folk songs, folk myths and rituals. The concert by RCM Symphony orchestra conducted the music director of ENO Martin Brabbins shined with two pieces for vocalists: mini comic operas ‘Renard’ (1915-16) and ‘Mavra’ (1921). ‘Les Noces’ (1923), performed as a taster to LPO concert in Southbank on 23rd February, in fact were very much part and parcel of this trilogy of Stravinsky vocal-symphonic pieces all having roots in his exploration of Russian ethnic motives. In all three pieces different young vocalists from Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory were appearing, thus giving audiences a rare chance to hear Russians infusing Stravinsky’s pieces with a true Russian spirit without having to overcome challenges in delivering the stories’ meaning. And young singers indeed shined in all three pieces, enjoying them utmostly and sharing the fiest of their singing with us.

RCM Symphony Orchestra

Galina Averina as the bride and Maria Ostroukhova as mother were appearing in ‘Les Noces’ (conducted by Petrenko), and in their delivery the music and the texts (different bridal songs collected by Stravinsky for this piece) with speed and mastery, almost like being on an enchanted roller-coaster from which the bells and pearls of the bridal reunion and happiness were shining in their quick fall to the ground. Petrenko always led forward this joyful exploration, and was smiling a conspiratory smile during the final applause.The boys who sang in ‘Renard’ with RCM Symphony orchestra and Martin Brabbins were also extraordinary. Bogdan Galyapa as ‘The Cock’, Alexander Borodeiko as ‘The Fox’, and the duet of Timophey Pavlenko and Kirill Kapachinskikh as ‘The Goat’ and ‘The Cat’ were positioned in the middle of the orchestra and behind the conductor, while I think it would have been better for them to stand in front of us, as they were so much fun in their youthful interpretation of ‘Renard’.

They were almost like actors performing for children at some intimate theatre eveving, always so tender and so accurate in their vocal impersonation of the animals, while also very precise in their harmonies of their four different voices, so that they sounded as Krylov’s famour animal ‘Quartet’ (or may be the one from brothers Grimm, for that matter) finally harmonized to perfection. Bogdan Galyapa stole the evening here, as he was impersonating his animal with so much vigour and acting perfection, while also being attentive to his partners and to the whole development of the piece. He indeed brought the spirit of ‘Renard’ and of Alexander Afanasyev’s Russian folk collection (Stravinsky based his piece on several of fairytales from this famous conglomerate) to the stage. The third piece here was ‘Mavra’ where students from Moscow put on a small staged opera with a samovar and a table, and beautiful Russian head and shoulder scarfs, with three women – Alena Rozkopa, Veronika Ershova and Anna Viktorova playing Parasha, Mother and Neighbour, and Alexander Chernova impersonating ‘Mavra’ – the whole piece was a lot of fun musically and theatrically. It is so wonderful to see young students discovering Stravinsky and their own Russian heritage through him and bringing both to welcoming English audiences. It is also wonderful that the evening was streamed so many other people who did not brave the snow on that day could see it.

The third concert moved back to the Royal Festival Hall at Southbank Centre and had the same structure as the first one – a piece for a soloist and an orchestra (this time –Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major in Sergey Krylov’s interpretation), a piece by Stravinsky to start a concert, and a matching themed piece to follow in the second part of the evening – and it was Ravel’s ‘Daphnis et Chloé’ (Suites 1 and 2). Here some additional events happened on the day – the LPO members’ rehearsal with Vasily Petrenko who was again conducting and ‘Behind the baton’ discussion about Stravinsky’s ‘Pulcinella’ moderated by the wonderful composer and specialist in Russian and Soviet music Gerard McBurney. This evening was themed around the ballet, though, as Stravinsky’s and Ravel’s symphonic suites (both originally intended for ballets) proved. It is interesting how both pieces are theatrically involved, and feature the stories in a way similar to Debussy’s ‘Prèlude à l’après-midi d’un faun’ – the fine line between seduction, love and dream, the presence of ‘ewig weiblige’ around a male figure. Stravinsky and Ravel’s insertion into historic myths and musical heritage of previous epochs and their exploration of other works and composers in their own pieces also brings these two works together, with Stravinsky’ ‘Pulcinella’ deliberately positioning itself as neoclassicist borrowing from Pergolesi and rejoicing in doing so. This famous music was used in a wonderful show ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ (Denis Podalydès) in Comédie Française in Paris, bringing to my mind another story of poetry, love, dreams and seduction. Petrenko shined again in his joyful and youthful leadership of LPO orchestra, deliberately saying to musicians during the rehearsal that he would like to see some more fun in Stravinsky’s piece as it was intended to be such by a composer. Petrenko’s signature gestures and movements of his whole body during conducting were really bringing in some ‘dancing’ onto the podium, as one was feeling that Vasily was silently impersonating Pulcinella himself.

Credits: Bo Mathisen

But despite Stravinsky’s theme, one could definitely say that it was Sergey Krylov’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto that was the musical highlight of the evening. Krylov might have lacked the external artistisim in the way that Petrenko had in abundance, but he was fully concentrating on delivering a wonderful, virtuosic and daring piece by Tchaikovsky. One could say that his violin became another fiery and passionate dancer during this evening, with audiences enraptured by his music-making and feeling again Stravinsky’s strong connections with Russian great classical masters. This concert was considered as ‘unplayable’ or only possible for the few ones by contemporaries of Tchaikovsky, and it is interesting that Krylov continued this mythology of 19th centuries virtuosos by doing an encore with excerpts from Paganini’s 24 caprices. It was met with another uproar by the public, and contributed to the general feeling of artistry where music, physical movements and poetical visions were combined for a marvellous effect. Another powerful treat indeed from Russian musicians that makes one who was born in St Petersburg (the author of these lines) proud of Russia’s strong and continuing presence in contemporary musical history of performers who, with the support of friendly and wonderful British orchestras (like LPO and RCM Symphony) are channeling the lyricism and innovation of the pieces by Russian 19 and 20th century composers to European audiences.

Originally published at Art Around the Globe