What do Vaughan-Williams, Rachmaninov, and Tchaikovsky all have in common? Well, two things. Firstly, they all wrote vaguely interesting bass parts. And secondly, if played incorrectly, their pieces can sound like the musical equivalent of leek and potato soup. Take a minute. Think about it. Yeah. Soup. I recently watched the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra at St David’s Hall play a concert of some of my favourite works, like, ever – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, by Vaughan-Williams, Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s First Violin Concerto. I should have known this would end in disaster and disappointment, but actually, it wasn’t too bad. I should disclose now that the cello part of Rachmaninov’s second symphony is possibly my favourite cello part in existence (and I mean in existence, I’m comparing it to concertos and everything) so the fact that I couldn’t actually hear it was a little disappointing. But I’m jumping ahead.
My first impressions were that the string section used for the Vaughan Williams was absolutely massive. And then my next impression was confusion – they had seated a load of seemingly random players at the back, away from their respective sections. It became quickly apparent that these players were part of the solo string section that Vaughan-Williams scored for, but then I was even more confused because I thought that common practise was a) to use section principles who are b) usually at the front of the orchestra. Perhaps it was to do with projection – admittedly, there were some lovely moments where the orchestra faded away to the solo section, which projected from the back of the stage, leading to a feeling of real distance. When they played, they were mostly unmuted but because of the physical distance between listener and player, they sounded almost otherworldly. This effect, I feel, would have been lost, had they been at the front. Despite this, it did look a bit odd. I made a few general observations about the bass section too – most were standing, but had stools and chairs behind them! Very odd. At the beginning of the concert, the basses were resting with their scrolls on the chairs, which looked very, very, unsafe. I did a bit of sympathetic hyperventilation before I got shushed by the people behind me. (Pricks.) Also, there were no girl-bassists. This made me sad. They all used German hold. This also made me sad. However, what made me happy was googling Vaughan-Williams and discovering that he looks hilarious. Look at his adorable rectangular face. Nawww.
Another strange thing about the Vaughan-Williams was that it was easily the loudest number in the programme, despite being only strings. The Tchaikovksy concerto is scored for a reduced orchestra (I think, there aren’t any trombones) but nevertheless, the string section remained roughly the same size. Huge. Despite this, they weren’t very loud – I don’t know whether this was an issue of projection, or to do with where I was sitting, or simply because years of playing in front of the percussion section has damaged my hearing, but I was backed up on this by a number of audience members during the interval, so at least I know it wasn’t just me. The soloist was Alexander Sitkovetsky, who practically sweated out charisma and confidence. Actually, I don’t know if he was sweating. He seemed pretty confident. He swaggered onto the stage in a very respectful, calm manner, waited until the orchestra had finished the opening of the concerto, and then blasted out a beautiful, clear interpretation. I was a fan. And not only because I googled him afterwards and he’s pretty beautiful. My only criticism of his performance would be his choice of cadenza. I don’t know which cadenza it was, but it was either very atonal or very out of tune, and either way it felt incongruous with the rest of his performance. He used wacky things like false harmonics and odd, odd chords. I’m not well-versed in the alternative cadenzas for this concerto so I can’t really comment further, but it’s worth mentioning. The orchestral balance was also disappointing – the brass absolutely drowned out the strings at pivotal moments. My final criticism is of the audience – they clapped after the first movement! I’m not sure how I feel about this as I’ve read differing accounts of how not clapping is extremely classist and snobbish, but I do think that it somewhat interrupts the musical atmosphere to have sudden unwanted mass audience participation in the percussion section. That’s just me, though. Reading this through, it seems that my three criticisms are of the soloist, the orchestra, and the audience. How very fair of me.
Rachmaninov generally has a very odd effect on me. Upon hearing the opening of any of his works, I start making faces like Eugene Ormandy (on the left). Especially with his second symphony, which I’ve realised over the past few years is horrifically overplayed, but this doesn’t detract from its beauty or resonance. There were a few orchestral decisions that didn’t make sense to me – the choice of french horn mute, for example, which sounded quite incongruous as it was a very harsh sound in an otherwise smooth texture and soundworld. In other, slightly less diplomatic terms, it sounded like a dying frog. A more musical choice was the excessive use of portamento, especially in the first violin section. I reasoned that this might be a Russian stylistic choice, culturally, but it did sometimes feel a little out of place. The conductor had a very elastic sense of time (despite outstanding control) which meant that the rubatos were true
rubatos in the sense of really ‘stealing time’. It was particularly apparent during the principal theme of the first movement, which changed so much in tempo over only a few bars that I almost felt seasick. But in a good way. My only major criticism was that I literally couldn’t hear the cellos. To be fair, there were nine cellos competing with eight basses, which seems like a very strange balancing choice, but I couldn’t hear the basses much either. Perhaps because they were on tour, they weren’t putting much welly into it, but I was a bit disappointed.
Something I found quite interesting is that later this month, in Bradford, the orchestra are doing a similar concert
, but with a different conductor. The concert I saw was conducted by Alexander Dmitriev, who is either a Russian accordion player
or conductor of the St Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra
. Are they different from the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra? Who the fuck did I see last week?! I think it’s most likely that they dropped the ‘Academic’ when on tour, since Vladimir Altschuler,
who’s conducting the concert in Bradford, also appears on the St Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra website. I think it would be an interesting experiment to listen to the Bradford concert and compare it to the Cardiff concert, to see the difference the conductor had on the interpretation of the work. Especially with the violin concerto, to see the relative input of orchestra, soloist, and conductor.
Something slightly amusing that happened was the Mysterious Invisible Harpist. During the entire concert, a harp was on stage, but alas! No harpist. Also, alas! No harp parts. Its presence seemed entirely superfluous and quite confusing. We were even more confused when she appeared at the end to take a bow, despite not having been on stage yet. We were even more confused when she didn’t play in the first encore – Rachmaninov’s Vocalise – but slightly placated when she played during the second – I don’t know what it was, I was too busy watching the harpist. The encores felt a little gratuitous, especially the second, but this may have been because I really, really needed a drink and my left leg had gone to sleep, so I was slightly anxious to leave. The depressing thing is that the harpist probably got paid a load in porterage fees and performance fees, but I’m slightly placated to learn that the orchestra are playing alternative repertoire in different concerts this tour that might feature her more. Otherwise she’d have lugged her harp all the way over from Russia to play for two minutes per concert, which hardly seems fair, or economical. But since when was classical music fair or economical?
In conclusion, this concert was lovely but I wasn’t blown away. I didn’t want to be deafened, but I didn’t enjoy having to strain to hear the different harmonies. Three arbitrary stars for you, St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra.