Proms 52 & 54: Russian masters

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Valery Gergiev’s Cinderella, and Vasily Petrenko’s Shostakovich 10

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Valery Gergiev has started something of a Proms fixture of performing complete ballets during the season. Last year it was Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, which provoked muttering from some critics for using an adulterated Mariinsky edition rather than Tchaikovsky’s original scoring.

There was no question, though, that this time, in performing Cinderella, Gergiev used a composer-approved version of the score, full of some of Prokofiev’s most delicate orchestral effects, superbly realised by the London Symphony Orchestra. That said, there are still one or two dances rather gratuitously punctuated (by the composer) with bass drum thuds, recalling Prokofiev’s outburst against his dancers who complained about the inaudibility of his music: ‘You want drums, not music!’

Though a poorish relation to his much more celebrated ballet Romeo and Juliet, Prokofiev’s Cinderella contains some of his most beautiful music – not least the velvety-rich string scoring given to the final apotheosis of its heroine’s theme. Prokofiev’s stated aim in composing the ballet was to present Cinderella as a flesh-and-blood character rather than a cardboard fairy-tale character. It does not follow from this, though, that he felt obliged to compose a work of a symphonic-cohesion or even purposefulness such as one finds with Romeo and Juliet; in Act I in particular there are several longueurs where the music is meant to complement comic stage business involving the ugly sisters.

Act II was the undoubted highlight with its series of dances, and in this performance there was a genuine coup de théâtre when the extra brass band, which in the ballet appears on-stage, sounded in the Albert Hall from high up in the gallery: the result was a well-coordinated but striking antiphony, adding an unexpected and enriching aural perspective to Prokofiev’s score.

I was rather hoping a similar effect would be presented the following evening with the London premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Symphony No. 9, written for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO) in honour of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee: reading reviews of its 9 June premiere by the RLPO in Liverpool, I came across The Guardian’s description of a ‘conflict between the main orchestra and a brass sextet placed above it on the platform’.

In the Albert Hall, there was indeed a brass sextet complemented by a further seven brass players on the opposite side of the platform; but they were not placed in the gallery but simply higher up the rake of the main performing stage, in line with the percussion. Maxwell Davies’s programme note, condemning ‘our disastrous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan’ and describing the horrors of the 1941 blitz he witnessed as a young child, turned out to be rather more stirring than the music itself which, a number of ‘strident military-style marches’ apart, seemed lost in a vaguely harmonic cloud too murky to be evocative or particularly compelling.

Delius’s Violin Concerto, played by Tasmin Little (who has made this work something of a signature piece, having made two very fine recordings of it), offered contrast and relief. Its sighing chromatics may fleetingly recall Chausson’s Poème, but Delius here is trading not in poignancy but in hedonistic delight, the Concerto casting its spell most potently in the hushed, semi-accompanied cadenza that is at its heart. Tasmin Little, dressed in a striking burnt orange gown, played the work with evident love and immaculate technique.

The real highlight, though, came after the interval with Petrenko and the RLPO’s performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10. Their recording of this was shortlisted for the 2011 BBC Music Magazine Awards, and their superbly disciplined performance did not disappoint: in fact hearing it live revealed a huge range of dynamic contrasts, from the very hushed opening of the work to the ferocious brass at full throttle in the short, angry scherzo of the second movement.

Perhaps most touching, though, was the third movement’s odd little dance between Shostakovich’s musical monogram, D-S-C-H, and the horn fanfare figure based on his beloved’s E-L-Mi-R-A (Elmira being a composition pupil for whom Shostakovich conceived an unrequited love). After the blistering excitement of the finale came an explosive roar of applause for what had been surely one of the greatest performances of one of Shostakovich’s most consummate works.