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S & H Concert Review

Mozart, Bruckner: RCM Symphony Orchestra, Vassily Sinaisky, RCM, 31st January 2002 (MB)


Although a student orchestra, the RCM seldom choose programmes which are easy options. Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony is an Everest of the repertoire, a work which many professional orchestras find difficult enough to navigate, let alone a student body. To couple this with a first half which included Mozart arias and an overture displayed a level of courage to shame some of this orchestra’s more illustrious colleagues. Concerts with just Bruckner’s Eighth are all too common experiences in the concert hall.

The performance of the Bruckner was often quite fascinating, although this was by far one of the most unsubtle, even wilful interpretations I have witnessed live. Vassily Sinaisky set torrential tempi, much as Mravinsky used to do in this work, tempi which were oddly appropriate given the elemental weather which at one staged threatened to besiege the temporary calm of the Adagio. However, this was by no means a seamless traversal of the score, with ensemble unravelling quite alarmingly at times; taken as a whole, however, this did not entirely matter when the playing was both so fresh and so spontaneous. You will listen in vain to hear tremolo string playing as caustic as it was here, the figurations taken as if every string player were doing a devil’s dance. In part, this was the reason why the upper strings retained a somewhat steely tone (some terse and short bow lengths dominated), particularly when compared with the ‘cellos and basses which were often burnished and dense in tone. Indeed, throughout the symphony the low strings provided a truly sonorous experience and they added magical warmth to a performance which constantly tried to shy away from the spiritual.

During the first movement this ‘temporality’ set the predominant mood: prosaic wind playing (in part emphasised by the fact it was often not tripled) and brass which were somewhat muddied in texture. Sinaisky took an ambivalent attitude towards dynamics – at times quite intent on producing hushed playing, at others, like Toscanini, intent on breaking the recording equipment so ferocious were the triple fortes. His handling of the first entry of the harps in the Adagio, for example, was done with a sublime touch: they literally appeared like angels, so ethereal was their playing. Woodwind, so plain in the first two movements, here had a radiance of tone (and sublime breath control) and the Wagner tubas, intonation problems apart, produced a magnificent boldness of sound. The strings were generally sonorous throughout – although an occasional ‘flatness’ to the violins, and noticeable problems with pitch, blemished the movement at the beginning. Most striking was a magnificent climax to the Adagio in which everything was in place. It was truly thrilling. Double basses achieved astonishing depth of tone, rumbling like a tremor or aftershock, and the closing pages of the movement brought playing of refinement and beauty. The final movement was unleashed with terrifying power – almost as if the hounds of hell were on the rampage. Trumpets and trombones were thrilling, and the attaca playing on the cellos was lastingly memorable. The great coda – one of the miracles of western music – was splendidly conceived, although I would have wished for greater security in the brass. In an imperfect world, however, this is as good as it gets.

This was a performance which eschewed the granitic strength of a Viennese interpreter, opting instead for something far more visceral. As played here the symphony was underpinned by a terrifying clarity, and shifted its moods constantly as if embedded on quicksand. What made this very special, despite, or in spite of, the technical faults, was the sheer belief of these players in their conductor’s vision. It really was extraordinarily fresh and I believe every one of these young musicians was captivated by the experience of playing this great symphony. I doubt they will ever do so again, but they should be congratulated for firing the imagination of this critic.

I do wonder, however, how different this performance might have sounded in another acoustic. Playing Bruckner’s grandest symphony in a hall only slightly bigger than the Wigmore Hall poses all sorts of problems for balance and clarity. Occasionally this performance seemed to be suffocated by its own power. I was reminded of trying to squeeze a shark into a goldfish bowl.

Sinaisky started this concert with Mozart’s Overture to Così fan tutte. Big-boned playing, with a grand sound, showed how wonderfully refined this orchestra can be, but I wished the performance had hinted more at lightness of touch than an inclination towards heavy handedness. Julianne de Villiers then sang two arias – from Idomeneo and Clemenza. She has a warm, rich sound which quite easily fills the RCM without strain, but a certain nervousness prevented her from giving a fully coloured reading of these not insubstantial pieces. At times, Parto, parto seemed to lie a bit too high in the register for this voice to do the aria full justice, but there is no doubting that this voice has an agility too infrequently heard in mezzo range.

Marc Bridle


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