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Janáček & Suk

Janáček The Eternal Gospel & Taras Bulba
Suk Asrael Symphony

Sofia Fomina/Adrian Thompson [pictured]
LPO/Vladimir Jurowski

Royal Festival Hall, London, 20 February 2010

An overloaded programme, costly to mount and surely exhausting to rehearse; it is well covered in length and depth by other critics, complete with the genesis of these works, none of them often given live.

I first heard Taras Bulba being rehearsed long ago by Rafael Kubelik at the BBC's Maida Vale studio; chatting with him afterwards, he was at pains to stress the correct pronunciation of the composer's name, Janáček's music still little heard in UK. The experience then was devastating; less so in RFH on Saturday, where I found it rather clinical and dry, and not emotionally engulfing.

More interesting, and still a rarity was The Eternal Gospel, about divine love against the realities of the First World War, with a large choir having to tackle the Czech language, and doing so with a will. Many of us there will not have heard it before, certainly not live. No question about Adrian Thompson's heroic tenor; thrillingly dominant over the large orchestra - he had previously recorded it for Hyperion.

Wondering whether the acoustics had affected my response to Taras Bulba, for the Suk, I moved to a side block of the Rear Stalls (we used to call it the Terrace) - a tip to check is to walk around during applause; the differences are surprising...

Josef Suk's Asrael takes a whole intense hour - some audience members departed during the designated long pause between the 3rd and 4th of the five movements. I found the sound warmer; not especially loud, but with an enhancing resonance which especially helped the strings and some of the solo winds to bloom. Jurowski moulded it convincingly, and it was a performance to savour and remember.

A word about RFH programme notes; glossy and full of adverts, they are so expensive that very many concertgoers just don't buy them. And for those that do, "the audience could have done with more guidance from the LPO's typically skimpy programme notes" (David Nice). For those with short reading spans, the LPO provided an even skimpier SPEEDREAD !

But on this occasion the two pages of programme notes were usefully augmented with the full words of The Eternal Gospel, with essential translations to follow against the sung orginal - and the lights were left up enough to do so. Some promoters provide texts as free leaflets, always appreciated.

This was a worthwhile concert, a good one to have experienced live. It can be heard on the radio Wednesday evening; but R3 listeners may have to take the sentiments of Eternal Gospel on trust, unless the BBC gets the texts up on their website?

Peter Grahame Woolf

Shostakovich "The Nose"; The Gamblers; 1st Symphony

LPO/Jurowski with vocal soloists. RFH 24 February 2010

Shostakovich's tragic, compromised life in Soviet Russia proves endlessly fascinating and so a well filled Royal Festival Hall greeted Vladimir Jurowski to the podium for the second of his exploratory concerts this month. It was devoted to rare theatrical works plus the miraculous 1st Symphony, which received a superlative performance, leaving the audience on a high for the interval.

The 18 year old Shostakovich's student symphony is a precocious miracle, and huge credit to his tutors for not curbing its wayward development, which could not have been planned to an advance schema, but must have found its 'structure' as he composed it. Far more exciting live than ever on disc, a special word for Catherine Edwards' aplomb in despatching the perilous incursions of the piano which enters at full speed for several brief moments of glory.

The symphony was sandwiched between two comparative rarities, the preparatory Suite "The Nose" which was given before the whole opera was premiered, and after the interval the substantial fragment, tidied up a little by Rozhdestvensky, which is all that remains of his Gogol project The Gamblers.

It all looked fine in prospect, and the anarchic Nose Suite made for a virtuosic, raucous opener, with ten percussionists and two balalaika players apparently on the LPO's payroll. The precision of the LPO's playing was breathtaking. Baritone Sergei Leiferkus was in fine voice and Mikhail Urosov delivered some of the loudest tenor singing ever to have graced the RFH ! "Totally serious music, there's no parody or joking in it" (Shostakovich) - if you believe that, you'll believe anything about Soviet Russia...

Would that the ordering of this concert had been different.

The Gamblers remained unfinished, praise be... A word for word setting of Gogol's play (as had been Vaughan-Williams' one-acter of Synge's Riders to the Sea) it soon became frankly boring, little helped by semi-staging of the card-sharping set up, with not a redeeming feature in any of the crooks who share the arioso delivery of the text.

Shostakovich showed admirable realism in abandoning an opera which would have stretched to some five hours or more if completed; Yurowski less good sense in inflicting it upon us, though the temptation to give it a go in the version rescued by Rozhdestvensky was understandable.

But he should have got it over in the first half, straight after The Nose excerpts.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Shostakovich The Nose CD

Opera in three acts to a libretto after the novella by Nikolai Gogol

Platon Kuzmich Kovalev – Vladislav Sulimsky
Ivan Yakolevich – Alexei Tanovitski
Praskovya Osipovna – Tatiana Kravtsova
A district constable – Andrei Popov
Ivan, Kovalev’s valet – Sergei Skorokhodov
The Nose – Sergei Semishkur
A countess’s servant – Sergei Romanov
Newspaper office clerk – Vadim Kravets
A doctor / A coachman – Gennadi Bezzubenkov
Yarzhkin – Yevgeny Strashko
Pelageya Grigorievna Podtochina – Elena Vitman
Pelageya Grigorievna Podtochina’s daughter / A market woman – ZlataDombrovskaya
Solo soprano (cathedral) – Yulia Khazanova

Other roles played by members of the Mariinsky Company and Chorus

Mariinsky Orchestra/ Valery Gergiev
Recorded 15-23 July 2008 in Mariinsky Concert Hall, St Petersburg


Received for review promptly after the recent London performance of the preliminary vocal and orchestral Suite [see above], this recording has deservedly won high plaudits.

However crazy the text and the vocal intricacies, the orchestra under Gergiev keeps its cool and delivers this famous score - 1927-28, avantgarde pre avantgarde - with seeming confident accuracy stemming from experience in the theatre, where many of the singers had played some of the numerous parts.

The gist of the first two Acts can be followed fairly easily with the parallel Russian and English texts. The third, however, proceeds at breakneck speed and is so outrageously complex that one is quickly lost, not that that really matters. It is an ensemble show, with Vladislav Sulimsky to the fore, keeping us concerned for his plight until in Act 3 Scene Nine he wakes fom his nightmare to find his proud, treasured appendage intact and in the right place...

Instead of a Cyrillic/English translation glossary, the producers of the otherwise excellent 100 page booklet would have done better to have supplied frequent track time guides in minutes & seconds to help keep us on the rails.

Strongly recommended as an indispensable example of the 22 year old composer's genius, its text and setting a warning of the perils soon to overwhelm his country.

Peter Grahame Woolf