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Two 20th Century Russian Masterpieces

Baibe Skride, violin  and Robert Minczuk, conductor  

Orpheum, March 26, 2011 

     Truly a VSO concert for ‘romantics’: an attractive combination of Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff with the exciting 29 year-old Latvian violinist Baiba Skride, and the current conductor of the Calgary Symphony Orchestra, Robert Minczuk.  The violinist has received wide acclaim for her five recent CD’s on Sony Classics and currently plays the Stradivarius ‘Wilhelmj’ (1725).

  Baiba Skride. Photograph: Marco Borggreve

Baiba Skride. Photograph: Marco Borggreve

     The Prokoviev Violin Concerto No. 1 was the quiet work on the programme, an innovative combination of serene lyricism and snappy sardonic wit.  In the opening movement, the violinist projected clean, wonderfully-poised lines, always very careful to bring out the shape, point and delicacy of the writing. It would be difficult to find playing more beautiful than this: ‘the playing of an angel’. But perhaps everything was just a little too dreamy; at some point the orchestra must cut across this with brazen attack.  However, this was not to be, and by the end of the movement, tension had sunk rather low.  The following scherzo started with appealing athletic zeal and much agile playing but, once again, the sinew of the work, its cut and thrust, did not fully materialize.  Everything seemed slightly under-projected.  The instrumental colour of the last movement was certainly present but again it was articulated comfortably, rather than in a sharply vivid way.

     So, a performance of some beauty but not the complete story.   Prokofiev is, and must always remain, a ‘man of iron’.  On the other hand, Baibe Skride is clearly a very talented young violinist.  For all her tone is rather small, it is beautiful.  She is structurally aware, and brings both precision and individuality to her phrasing.

     Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 (1906) is of course a touchstone of all post-romantic music.  Its dreamy slow movement with the beautifully suspended clarinet solo has inspired many film scores, has permeated radio themes, and may have been the music that many first fell in love to.  The work has a drama and power, a compelling rhapsodic flow, and expresses emotions directly.

     There were many fine moments and big orchestral climaxes in Robert Minczuk’s interpretation but it was not a very settled or commanding performance.  As the conductor did not establish a consistent pulse or flow from the outset, he had to put in a lot of work to keep things together.  He would tend to get one section moving in the right direction but then would have to change gears to move to the next one, and so on.  One problem is that his string phrases were too short to get the breadth and texture needed.   To shape the Rachmaninoff phrase, one must ‘push up, hold and then move down’ whereas the conductor typically just went ‘up, down’.  This meant that he had to ‘stir the pot’ much too often, to use Sir Thomas Beecham’s apt phraseology.  The sensual slow movement was sustained reasonably well though it started less remotely than it might and the initial clarinet entry was too loud.  The last movement, somewhat bouncy and sectional for my taste, was nonetheless willed to a satisfying conclusion. The audience respected the conductor’s sheer effort in performing this work and gave him a warm ovation.

© Geoffrey Newman 2011