Last Friday, I was treated to a distinguished performance by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. The concert, which took place in Sheffield City Hall, was missing the intended conductor, Yuri Botnari. Instead, we were presented with the formidable powers of Yuri Siminov – a truly international conductor who has elevated the orchestra to new heights since his appointment as Principle Conductor and Music Director in 1998.
The program was entirely Russian. It began with extracts from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Sleeping Beauty, and was followed by Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 1. The second half of the concert featured Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scherezade.
Maestro Siminov conducted the works with finesse and reassuringly understated baton technique. He has been lauded as a great Tchaikovsky conductor, and his appreciation of the great composer was apparent as he drew out the subtleties of the work. By turns, he whipped the orchestra into a brooding cloud, or a playful marching band, and bobbed up and down as if dancing during the rhythmic sections. Despite this, I couldn’t help finding the extracts of Sleeping Beauty to most conventional and uninspired music of the evening.
The Shostakovitch contrasted well with the Tchaikovsky. According to University of Sheffield music lecturer David Patmore, who helpfully provided the program notes, the cello concerto was written in response to Boris Pasternak’s novel of 1957, Doctor Zhivago. The novel depicts the grim realities of life in the Soviet Union under Stalinist rule, and drew fierce criticism from the Soviet authorities. Shostakovitch – who received similar persecution from the Soviet authorities a decade earlier – appears to have been deeply affected by Pasternak’s treatment.
The haunting melody of the solo cello and the strained harmonic dissonance evoked a narrative of the hardships under Stalin’s rule. British soloist Guy Johnston’s playing was fiercely virtuosic, and incredibly tender in all the right places. It is a testament to Johnston’s ability that his playing managed to shine through highly capable performance of the orchestra. Johnston and Siminov had such an electric connection over the 30 minutes of the four movements that my eyes hardly left the pair of them.
Scherezade, by Rimsky-Korsakov, was the biggest surprise of the evening for me. I had an ill-formed preconceived notion that Rimsky-Korsakov was a heavy handed, red blooded composer due to a piece of his I played percussion in when I was a kid. Not at all. Scherezade was a hugely evocative, sprawling work; a wonderful fusion of traditional Western orchestration and Eastern melodies.
The score is based on the Arabian Nights – a collection of Asian folk tales originally written in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age. ‘Scherezade’ is the name of a Sultan’s wife, who tells him stories each night to stave off her execution. Her oriental violin theme can be heard repeatedly throughout the work.
Lush Romantic strings capture the tossing sea in passages inspired by Sinbad the Sailor, and in the fourth movement, the festival of Baghdad is depicted in fussy brilliance. An air of brilliant adventure permeates the entire work.
The concert was a welcome treat at the hands of an experienced and talented orchestra. It would have been appreciated if the talk by original conductor Botnari had taken place before the show, but it hardly spoiled a deliciously ripe concert.
Written by Nick Willoughby