S&H PROM review

PROM 23: Wilson, Mozart, Pärt, Shostakovich, Nobuko Imai (Viola), Ulster Orchestra / Dmitry Sitkovetsky Vln/Cond, Royal Albert Hall August 6, 2001 (SD)

The Russian-born violinist-conductor Dmitry Sitkovetsky chose an interestingly wide-ranging programme, spanning almost two-and-a-half centuries. The first and last works, separated by 75 years, are linked by a strong sense of energy and a pervasive unease. As well as conducting the Ulster Orchestra in all the works, Sitkovetsky was also soloist in Fratres (by Shostakovich's Soviet compatriot Arvo Pärt) and duetted with Nobuko Imai in Mozart's Sinfonia concertante: a challenging evening in which ultimately he spread himself rather too thinly.

The title of Northern Irish composer Ian Wilson's engaging orchestral work, Man o' War - premiered tonight - conjures up both poisonous jellyfish and battleships - neither allusion being particularly cosy. Wilson employs his forces well to portray movement and danger, with, for example, firing guns in the edgy brass and percussion followed by a sense of the aftermath of a battle, in slow, eerie strings, lugubrious oboe and menacing timpani. We hear a military bugle call, ingeniously paired with a triangle, near the end.

Sitkovetsky stepped into Classical mode and invited onto the platform the seasoned viola player Nobuko Imai to tackle Mozart's sublime Sinfonia concertante. Directing from the violin, Sitkovetsky had less opportunity than Imai to focus completely on the solo line, and it showed. After the clean, well-articulated orchestral introduction the soloists seemed initially more expansive, but Sitkovetsky soon settled into a rather business-like mood while Imai retained an exquisite sense of poetry, inflecting each line with the subtlest nuances and projecting a sweet yet powerful sound. In the relay-style dialogue of violin and viola, Sitkovetsky several times snatched the baton too brusquely out of Imai's hands in his effort to keep up the momentum. Even visually, his correct, unbending manner seemed at odds with her senuous and supple movements.

Pärt's own arrangement of his Fratres (Brothers) for solo violin, percussion and strings dates from 1992. The solo violin opens the work with a raw and highly virtuosic interpretation of the main material using intricate arpeggiated chords. And here Sitkovetsky came into his own, playing fluidly and with great authority, the starkness of the music seeming to suit his somewhat brusque style. Fratres conjures up space and timelessness with its slow pulse and grounded, modal harmony, and the sinister percussion adds to its sense of mysteriousness. Soloist and orchestra conveyed these elements very effectively, despite the very public atmosphere of the Albert Hall.

The teenage First Symphony of Shostakovich is remarkable in its expressive range, from youthful exuberance to the dark menace of the third and fourth movements. The teasing interplay of solo instruments in the first movement was well caught and the detached and hectic piano solos in the Scherzo expertly played. By the 'false' ending of that movement (before the strange, slow coda) the Ulster Orchestra had generated great excitement. In the Adagio, solo oboe and cello were poignant and the movement's 'weary' feel brought echoes of the Wilson. A strong string section was led by Lesley Hatfield, a diminuative powerhouse of a player who gave us some eloquent solos. More eloquent instrumental solos and tight orchestral ensemble followed in the eventful finale and, except for occasionally ragged wind entries and perhaps a shade too little passion overall, this was an impressive performance of the symphony.

Sarah Dunlop

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