Friday 13 January 2012

Ishizaka/LPO/Vedernikov - Prokofiev, 13 January 2012

Royal Festival Hall

Lieutenant Kijé: Suite
Cello Concerto in E minor, op.58
Symphony no.7 in C-sharp minor, op.131

Danjulo Ishizaka (cello)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Alexander Vedernikov (conductor)

‘Prokofiev: Man of the People?’ asks the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Prokofiev festival, curated by Vladimir Jurowski. For whatever reason – lack of availability, or professional generosity? – Jurowski did not conduct the opening concert, handing over the baton to Alexander Vedernikov. I could not help but wish that Jurowski had been at the helm, for Vedernikov’s inspiration seemed fitful, his approach less probing than that opening question might have suggested. Indeed, at times, I instead began to wonder whether I had over-estimated a composer of whom I have long been fond. There was little that was wrong with Vedernikov’s approach, but it was not difficult to imagine that Jurowski might have galvanised the troops more effectively.

The Lieutenant Kijé Suite opened and for the most part continued with disconcerting briskness. A revisionist view? Perhaps, but the impression was more of impatience, a lack of irony. Even the off-stage cornet seemed rushed. There was some splendid woodwind playing, though, in that first number (‘Kijé’s Birth’). The ‘Romance’ offers a relatively rare opportunity for a lyrical double bass solo, here well taken by Kevin Rundell, before the still rarer opportunity for a double bass-viola duet was presented (Ida Bryhn the guest principal). Prokofiev is often at his best when quirky. The LPO sounded in properly colourful form. ‘Kijé’s Wedding’ and the ‘Troika’ were nicely catchy; rhythms were sharply pointed, if again on the fast side – at times uncomfortably so. In the ‘Troika’, the two bassoonists (Gareth Newman and Laurence O’Donnell) were excellent and there was a splendid piccolo screech (Stewart McIlwham) at the end. Those burying the imaginary lieutenant did not hang around, but there was something of an edge to the final movement, suggestive of an irony elsewhere lacking; it was certainly a relief not to have the music sentimentalised.

The Cello Concerto, op.58, is a decidedly odd work. Though the performance was impressive, especially on the part of soloist Danjulo Ishizaka, time and time again I found myself asking ‘why is Prokofiev writing what he did here?’, ‘what is the motivation for the peculiar form?’ Ishizaka’s technique was well-nigh impeccable – the cello part is ferociously difficult – but equally noteworthy was the impassioned nature of his performance. Even if I found it difficult to believe in every note of the score, the impression was that the soloist did. Vedernikov was probably at his best here too, the opening to the first movement especially fine, with darkly imposing tone from the LPO and rock-solid rhythmic command. Lyricism was very much to the fore in Ishizaka’s account of the second movement. Prokofiev’s twists and turns were ably navigated; if only I could have appreciated the reasons for those twists and turns… The finale showed that Prokofiev had no difficulty in varying a melody, or indeed in constructing one, yet for the most part, the variations remained stubbornly arbitrary. Ishizaka performed the cadenza – and indeed the rest of the movement – with sensitivity and considerable personality. Alas, the final impression was that the composer did not seem to know where, or how, to end an unusual movement and an unusual concerto. (Alexander Ivashkin, a writer – and cellist – who strongly believes in the music, both in the present incarnation and as the Symphony-Concerto, makes an interesting case here.)

The final work on the programme was the Seventh Symphony. Its first movement once again revealed Vedernikov’s fondness for swift tempi: it was certainly on the fast side of Moderato, though for the most part, it flowed as opposed to being harried. Themes were well characterised, yet there was little audible attempt to conceal the seams; I have heard more symphonic accounts of an admittedly controversial work. The second movement’s rhythms were well sprung, in a winningly balletic account. It might have been a (slightly over-extended?) number from Cinderella. Melody was paramount in the third movement, not least that first employed in the incidental music to Eugene Onegin, though it was a pity about the sour brass intonation at the end. The finale: childish or childlike? It remained an open question, although (relatively) sterner moments made their own suggestion. I fancied, however, that a conductor such as Jurowski would most likely have delved deeper beneath the surface. Vedernikov’s was an attractive enough poster paint approach, but little more. At least he employed Prokofiev’s original ending, whose lack of spirit tells its own sad tale of the composer’s plight by 1952.