Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Hanslip/RPO/Slatkin - Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, 17 May 2010

Royal Festival Hall

Prokofiev – Symphony no.1 in D major, op.25, ‘Classical’
Prokofiev – Violin Concerto no.2 in G minor, op.63
Tchaikovsky – Symphony no.6 in B minor, op.74, ‘Pathétique’

Chloe Hanslip (violin)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin (conductor)

A disappointing concert, alas: I hope that this was a one-off rather than being indicative of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s fortunes since the departure of Daniele Gatti. Memories of Gatti’s Mahler Ninth will, I am sure, remain me for a long time; those of this performance will, I hope, prove more fleeting. Leonard Slatkin has often had a bad press in this country, contrasting starkly with his fortunes in his native USA. His tenure as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra was less than happy, but he has found a new London home with the RPO. On the evidence of this concert, however, there did not seem to be much rapport between orchestra and conductor.

The first piece, Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony began promisingly enough, the RPO’s cellos digging deep and the orchestra as a whole exhibiting crucial precision. Mendelssohnian woodwind added to a favourable initial sound world in the first movement. However, the music soon began to sound a little mechanised. A valid interpretative strategy? Perhaps, anticipating the motor rhythms of later or indeed some contemporary Prokofiev. But there are places at which the music benefits from some relaxation, which was not afforded here. A tempo that was arguably excessively fast led to more than a few imprecisions as the music progressed. The Larghetto simply sounded too fast, equivalent to a latter-day ‘authenticke’ approach to Classicism; whatever one thinks of that, it is hardly germane to Prokofiev’s concerns. Violins often sounded thin, perhaps under strain from their relative lack of numbers. The abiding impression was unyielding: more Stravinsky than Prokofiev. Ditto the gavotte, which certainly benefits from greater heft than was permitted here; it sounded ultimately inconsequential. The finale was much better, bolting like a Mannheim rocket, to mix a couple of metaphors. Part of the problem, I think, was that the RPO was somewhat scaled down – ten first violins, if I remember correctly – which made it neither a full-scale symphony orchestra such as Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic, peerless in this work, nor a crack chamber orchestra performing at full throttle. The half-way house, as so often, does not quite satisfy.

That said, the symphony received a better reading than Prokofiev’s second violin concerto. Here the fault lay squarely with the soloist, Chloë Hanslip. Maybe she was having an off day, but on the evidence of this performance, this was music that lay beyond her reach, both technically and interpretatively. Her opening phrase encapsulated both strains of shortcoming: far too slow, strangely deliberate, and highly uncertain of tuning. Thereafter tempo changes, which seemed largely to be dictated by how fast she was able to play, lacked motivation, and double-stopping generally exceeded her capabilities. There were times when the first movement, marked Allegro moderato, almost ground to a halt: more of a Shostakovich-like Moderato or even Andante. The slow movement started more promisingly, less ponderous and with greater orchestral warmth. However, Hanslip’s solo line soon exhibited the vibrato of a particularly wobbly soprano, especially on high notes. The tempo began to sag towards the middle of the movement – and continued to do so, torpor being the order of the day by the end. A better job was made of the finale, though it remained on the light side. There were, however, nice touches of ‘Russian’ vibrato from the trumpets. One of the great twentieth-century violin concertos never had a chance here though.

Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony benefited from a larger body of strings. The first movement was the most convincing: rather impressive even. Its introduction was taken slowly but convincingly so, with real depth to the violas. The exposition proper commenced with urgency, though there was sometimes a certain edge to the violins, which dissipated as the work progressed. Brass blared a bit too. From the moment we reached the second subject, however, the movement really hit its stride. In a soulful reading, the strings could really shine. And this wound down beautifully, so that the opening of the development could shock. Perhaps the movement as a whole sprawled a little, lacking the utter inevitability of a Mravinsky, but it was unquestionably the highpoint of the concert. There was something hauntingly funereal, cortège-like, to the coda, even though it sounds in the major mode. The waltz was not bad, but, ironically given its celebrated 5/4 time signature, somehow remained resolutely foursquare. It lacked easy-going charm, sounding all too effortful. The march was similar, the RPO’s response impressive enough in purely orchestral terms, though Slatkin’s direction was unduly metronomic. Yet there was no sense of subtext. Where was the anger? Should this sound merely enjoyable? Some members of the audience took Slatkin at his word, not only applauding, but cheering. (To his credit, the conductor was having none of it.) The final Adagio was songful, most convincing when the (more or less) full orchestra sounded, but it was hardly a threnody. Applause intervened immediately, presumably from the same morons who had made their presence felt after the march. Slatkin’s hands remained raised, leading to the somewhat farcical outcome of the applause dying down, before resuming. And whatever this symphony might be, a farce it is not.

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