PROKOFIEV, TCHAIKOVSKY AND SHOSTAKOVICH | BBC Proms 2017

Prokofiev’s Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution began this sold-out evening’s programme commemorating a hundred years since the 1917 Russian Revolution.  The enormous Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus (replete with a a megaphone, air raid siren and a trio of accordions) blew the roof off with hefty, weighty brass, and operatic, wide-vibrato style singing of Prokofiev’s text, including excerpts from the communist manifesto.  Considering the immense bloodshed of Stalin’s regime, Prokofiev’s dazzling, triumphant hymn to Stalin’s Soviet Constitution speech came across as “controversial” (as the programme warned) to say the least.

Multi award-winning pianist Denis Matsuev joined the orchestra for Tchaikovsky’s unfinished, one-movement 3rd Piano Concerto.  Facially expressive to the extreme, Matsuev made the piano sing, and shook the strings in the rattling, virtuosic sections.  An unscheduled encore for piano and orchestra of Lutosławski’s comic, maddening Variations on a Theme of Paganini immediately followed, a highlight of the evening for virtuoso showmanship.  After many minutes of foot-stamping applause, Matsuev obliged with a second encore of Liadov’s enchanting, delicate A Musical Snuffbox, a short but welcome emotional contrast, and a further versatile showcase for world-class Matsuev.

The Royal Albert Hall was packed to the rafters most likely for Shostakovich’s much-loved Symphony No. 5 in D Minor.  Bombastic, percussion-heavy fare fit in perfectly with the rest of the programme, with the strings unfortunately overpowered.  But in the “Largo” third movement, the strings had the opportunity to shine, working alongside first violin soloist Olga Volkova to bring the highly emotional ebbs and flows to the fore.  An immense ovation from the audience followed, met eventually with an unscheduled encore for orchestra of Liadov’s highly dramatic tone poem Baba Yaga.

World-renowned conductor Valery Gergiev’s hissing and panting were more than audible.  It’s hard to ascertain what conducting off-score, standing freely amid the strings, added musically, although it certainly suggested we were in the presence of a master.  Despite a handful of minor timing issues, the Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus showed us musical power and passion the likes we are not used to in the UK, and offered perhaps an inkling of the power and passion the communist revolutionaries had a hundred years ago.

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