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From Russia with love and musical perfection

Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Warwick Arts Centre, October 5.

When a Russian orchestra is billed to perform an all-Russian programme (Khachaturian, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich) audiences, understandably, expect something special.

But this concert at the Warwick Arts Centre by the legendary Russian State Symphony Orchestra, with formidable conductor, Valentin Uryupin (pictured above) and the much-loved British pianist, Barry Douglas (inset picture), surpassed all expectations.

The evening opened with the immediately up-lifting, instantly-recognisable, arch waltz from Khachaturian’s Masquerade, its ironic tone punctuated throughout by the superb percussion section.

The suite’s three following movements (lilting nocturne, lively mazurka, restrained romance) each had their own highlights, notably the nocturne with the lyrical solo by the principal violinist. The perfect pizzicato by the string section framed some beautiful solos by clarinet and flute and brought the whole suite to a boisterous close.

Next came Rachmaninov: his Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor, an exuberant piece in three movements (Vivace, Andante, Allegro Vivace). Rachmaninov revised the concerto in 1917, while ensuring he remain faithful to his youthful vision, reworking it just enough so ‘it plays itself’.

That the concerto did indeed seem to ‘play itself’ is testament to the tremendous skill of the fêted pianist, Barry Douglas, and the superb combination of conductor and orchestra, all of whom performed the piece with a perfect synergy, as one living, breathing entity.

This is a rare achievement indeed; even world-class orchestras and elite soloists do, on occasion, give the impression of vying for prominence, or, at the very least, being ‘not-quite-in-step’. It could be that Valentin Uryupin’s extensive experience as a clarinet soloist has given him an extra-special antenna – a kind of ‘hot line’ to the solo performer. Or it could be that Barry Douglas’s obvious enthusiasm for the music he plays is highly infectious.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Shostakovich’s mighty Symphony No. 5 in D minor, which he composed in 1937, the year after Stalin condemned his opera for being ‘chaos instead of music’ and so not fitting into the doctrine of Socialist Realism.

However, it is not necessary to know the political story behind the composition to appreciate the magnificence and power of this awesome symphony; music is an abstract art form and can be enjoyed without any ‘back-story’.

Right from the darkly-arresting opening bars in their minor key with their jagged dotted rhythms in the string section, bass first, then treble, the audience was gripped. By the time the lilting, elegiac, mesmerising theme emerged in the violins, not a sound could be heard throughout the whole auditorium. It was no less than thrilling to hear that same theme tortured and distorted and passed around from one instrument to another (piano, horn trumpet), growing ever more menacing, sour and violent.

The Allegretto second movement in its major key brought a brief change of mood with lovely solos on flute and horn, and some playful pizzicato in the strings, all reminiscent of Bizet’s ‘habanera’ when Carmen sings of love – another allusion, perhaps, by Shostakovich, to the indomitable nature of human passions.

The Largo third movement was nothing short of sublime. Having put aside his baton, the intensely-expressive Valentin Uryupin used his hands and fingers to evoke a wash of a soundscape: plaintive, flowing strings, unearthly harp-arpeggios, mesmeric playing from flute and oboe and the most exquisite-ever timing from triangle and cymbals. The pace and pulse were perfect and the audience held its breath till the shrill opening of the Allegro non troppo final movement shattered the mood. Such was the power and excitement of the final movement with the driving energy, with woodwind and stings obsessively repeating one single note (the dominant one) that it was difficult to remain seated at all. The coda was triumphant, and the extended passage of two repeated notes played on kettle drums was simply terrific, and the timpanist rightly got his own special cheer.

Hearing the Russian State Symphony Orchestra perform Shostakovich’s iconic fifth symphony under the phenomenally-talented Valentin Uryupin, was an intensely-moving, tremendously-exciting, unforgettable experience.

Uryupin graciously offered the audience a genteel encore of An English Melody -- just exactly what was needed to bring down the collective pulse of the exhilarated audience who had clapped and cheered and stamped their feet till Uryupin had to come back on stage no fewer than four times. What a privilege it was to have been there that evening, and what a wonderful opening to the 2018/2019 Warwick Arts Centre classical concert series!

Winner!