Friday, 12 November 2010

Suwanai/Philharmonia/Sokhiev - Debussy, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky, 11 November 2010

Royal Festival Hall

Debussy – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Prokofiev – Violin Concerto no.2 in G minor, op.63
Tchaikovsky – Symphony no.4 in F minor, op.36

Akiki Suwanai (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Tughan Sokhiev (conductor)

Rather to my surprise, given a conductor with a particular reputation in Russian music, it was Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune that came off best in this programme. Languid, heated, yet never uncontrolled, this was a Prélude à l’après-midi in a line from Tristan to Pelléas, several degrees warmer than that heard on the recent Proms visit from the Orchestre National de France and Daniele Gatti, yet equally valid in conception. Paul-Edmund Davies’s flute arabesques were exquisite, veritably dissolving the bar lines; so, however, were the other woodwind contributions and the harp parts too. The warmth of the Philharmonia strings hinted at the strong Russian orchestral influence upon Debussy: often overlooked, but not here.

This was my third hearing this year of Prokofiev’s second violin concerto. A work I had thought could more or less play itself seems to be proving far more elusive. Neither Chloe Hanslip nor Viktoria Mullova really emerged from the runway, both experiencing considerable technical difficulties. Akiki Suwanai was preferable in that respect, with the partial exception of the finale, but seemed neither to have anything to say about the work, nor to appreciate that a concerto is a collaboration between soloist, orchestra, and conductor. It was difficult to discern a single instance of interaction on her part. Tughan Sokhiev and the Philharmonia were forced merely to follow her mechanical rendition. Sokhiev pointed rhythms were he could, but his hands were largely tied. A clockwork character was not entirely unsuited to the second movement, and Sokhiev relaxed a little where possible, mostly when Suwanai was not playing; interaction again seemed entirely one-way, most glaringly during the soloist’s pizzicato ‘accompaniment’ at the end. The finale brought more of the same, albeit with instances of technical insecurity. What a pity, since the Philharmonia sounded colourfully unanimous throughout. Suwanai’s rush to the final climax, however, sounded more like Paganini than Prokofiev, quite devoid of personality.

I had expected Sokhiev to shine in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, but it was not really to be. The outer movements emerged brash, vulgar even, though there were more character and emotional depth to the inner movements. More gloomy than defiant, the opening brass struck an intriguing tone, albeit one that was not to be maintained. Hints thereafter of Prokofiev’s motor rhythms hardened into something all too rigid, whether in quicker material, or slower, the latter tending towards stasis. The Fate motif, when it returned, sounded disconnected, merely tacked on. Tchaikovsky sounded hollow, despite the undeniable brilliance of the Philharmonia’s performance. Unsurprisingly, the movement seemed over long. The Andantino in modo di canzone was much better, the Philharmonia still on fine form, but what had previously sounded incongruously mechanical now possessed an ominous yet warm tread, song-like in character. The folk-like quality of the movement’s central material was apparent to an unusual degree, but it developed with ease into something more symphonic. String pizzicati were flawless in the properly balletic scherzo, though woodwind intervention could have been announced a little less jarringly, more organically. The finale simply sounded rushed, unduly driven; again, Tchaikovsky sounded empty and vulgar.