Elgar with a Russian Accent?

SinaiskyBeethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4
Elgar: Symphony No. 2

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, leader Amyn Merchant
Vassily Sinaisky: Conductor
Kirill Gerstein: Piano

RADIO 3 listeners, as well as a full audience at the Lighthouse, were treated to a concert in which Russians were in charge both on the podium and the piano stool.

Standing as it does on the very cusp of Romanticism, Beethoven’s wide-ranging 4th Piano Concerto has intensely poetic passages, and in the second movement, a very dramatic ‘battle of wills’ between soloist and orchestra. Kirill Gerstein gave a luminously clear account of the piano part, favouring classical restraint over over-indulgent lyricism. The pianist’s range was shown in a dazzling and dramatic encore, Liszt’s fiendish Transcendental Etude No. 7 ‘Eroica’.

The Argentinian German-resident Daniel Barenboim is an admirer of Elgar’s music, and includes the Second Symphony in his repertoire. He has spoken of his irritation at continental programmes referring to ‘the English composer Elgar’: ‘they never write ‘the German composer Beethoven’ after all!’ It was good to hear Elgar’s international reputation confirmed in this performance conducted by a Russian, although Vasily Sinaisky, who spent sixteen years as the principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, is hardly new to the composer. Back in the 70’s the Hungarian Georg Solti made traditional Elgarists sit up with dynamic and dramatic readings of the symphonies, which had too often been presented as clotted in Edwardian nostalgia rather than as the urgent and troubled explorations of a complex and troubled composer.

Sinaisky avoided Solti’s frantic pace but still set the symphony in motion with an energetic and purposeful beat. Conducting without a baton, the 68-year-old conductor is an authoritative and purposeful presence on the podium, communicating urgently with his players via a clear beat and precise pointing at individuals. The resultant performance was outstanding, with this rich, complex and superbly orchestrated score leaping into life before us, with the orchestra playing having a heartfelt unanimity of purpose. The dramatic contrasts in mood and tempo within the first movement were handled with great confidence and assurance. Time after time I was struck by the originality with which Elgar uses his big orchestra, including two harps, bass and side drums, cymbals and tambourine and a big string section as well as the usual wind and brass. The clarity with which Sinaisky drew out the sounds in no way impaired the emotional sweep of the very affecting and stirring music in what is surely the greatest of all English symphonies.



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