Tuesday 28 October 2008

Rachel Barton Pine, Serebrier, the RSNO, an overused word and assorted prizes

If I was going to award a prize akin to the yellow jersey of the Tour de France, in other words to name the best concert of the season so far, tonight's effort (Saturday, for those living in Glasgow) would surely take it. It helped that no microphone was on stage, meaning that we were to be spared one of Deneve's pointless speeches. True, tonight was not without competition: Paul Lewis's appearance was special, but the concert had other flaws; Truls Mork was wonderfully understated, and the accompanying Beethoven was nice, but the Hadyn didn't entirely work. But the return of Rachel Barton Pine, whom we have previously praised, was always going to take some beating, though she will have have her work cut out holding the title: Mackerras is due in town on Friday (well, due in Glasgow, and we will be there).

Before that, however, there was the small matter of La Mer. No, not the Debussy, just as well, since I am no fan of the work and never find it especially evocative of the sea, particularly when compared to Britten's interludes. This sea was painted by Alexander Glazunov and, frankly, offered no greater insights, despite the beautiful playing of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Jose Serebrier. The fast start didn't feel very nautical. As things slowed there were some nice sounds but the work never really grabbed or greatly held attention.

Help was at hand though, as, with only the slightest rearrangement of the stage, Rachel Barton Pine joined us to play the Bruch violin concerto. Now, much like the Tchaikovsky piano concerto, I'm not generally a fan of the work; in large part this is due to fact that it is so overplayed it has become hackneyed. Not so from Barton Pine. And here is where I will use an overused word: genius (though, in truth, we rarely apply it to a performer). However, I do think there is genius in making a work like that sound and feel so wonderfully fresh, only very occasionally did things feel familiar, even in the infamous third movement (indeed, so much so that I wondered at one moment if we were not getting the second concerto instead). That, coupled with the fire and passion she brings to her playing, made for a captivating performance. Barton Pine seemed to delight in the music, swaying along on her stool during those brief moments when she got to down her instrument. Beneath all this Serebrier provided well judged accompaniment and the RSNO were at their absolute best, frankly showing up the LSO's performance in the role of accompanist last week.

She was extremely well received and we got down to the real treat. Now, I'm no fan of encores, but last time it was the highlight of the concert as she played Sweet Home Chicago, which could have been the only thing in the concert without leaving me feeling short-changed. Don't believe me, check out YouTube:

I had hoped for a repeat, but I'm glad she knew better. Another thing I like about Barton Pine is that she tells you what she's playing. In this case it was an arrangement by Heinrich Ernst, who she suggested was best known for trying to outdo Paganini in virtuosity. The piece he arranged was Schubert's Der Erlkonig, which, she told us, is fitting this close to Halloween: a father rides with his son, pursued by Der Erlkonig. The original lied capturing the lies of Der Erlkonig, the father's attempts to comfort his dying son, and the galloping of the horse is all transferred to the solo violin. Not surprisingly it makes for a work of fiendish complexity and dexterity, but Barton Pine brought it off vividly with wonderful aplomb and showmanship. I only wish there was a video of it on YouTube too.

After more applause, I made a swift beeline to the foyer to get a signed CD. They were all out of her new disc of the Beethoven concerto, having sold them all in Glasgow, but I can easily get that on Amazon. What they did have was better: a disc of encores, including the Schubert. Sadly this only seems to be available in the UK via extortionately priced imports.

As she noted when introducing the encore, she was very much enjoying being in Edinburgh for the third time. It is our sincere hope that the fourth is not too far in the future. If Mr Mills is reading this, perhaps you could invite her for the festival, possibbly to play a concerto and do a Queen's Hall concert.

After the interval it was the turn of another party piece, this time for the whole orchestra in the form of Mussorgsky and Pictures at an Exhibition (indeed, at this point, with two such popular works, I'm moved to question how Michael Tumelty can possibly have thought challenging was a fitting adjective to describe the night in his Herald review). The twist was that this was not the Ravel orchestration but rather that of Leopold Stokowski. And it left me with one big question: why do we not hear this one more often; indeed, why do we not hear it more than the Ravel? The reason for hearing it tonight must in no small part be down to the time Serebrier spent under Stokowski's wing early in his career. In programme notes both Anthony Burton and Serebrier tell us that Stokowski felt Ravel's Pictures were not Russian enough; he also drops two pictures with French subjects. The results are wonderful, and vividly realised by the RSNO and Serebrier: from the humour of the unhatched chicks (with some exceptional trumpet and wind playing) to the eerie catacombs with its so soft and slow rendition of the promenade theme on the strings. If there was a complaint it would be that the bells were not loud enough during the Great Gate of Kiev, though I think this is in large part down to the inadequacies of the Festival Theatre as a concert venue (though, broadly, the sound was decent, leading me to suspect the problems during Mahler 5 were more down to Deneve).

Sadly, that was not all. The microphone had reappeared during the interval and Serebrier asked if we wanted to hear more. The audience was clearly in disagreement with me, but I cannot understand how anyone can think an encore can possibly add anything after something as powerful as that (something the conductor alluded to in his talk). If there is such a piece it most certainly isn't Stokowski's arrangement of Dido's Lament from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, nice and nicely played though it was. Despite the lukewarm applause he seemed determined to play another, this time Stokowski's arrangement of Bach's 'little' fugue in G minor BWV 578. This, with its climactic close, was a better finish, but better still to have left done after the Mussorgsky. Now, having studied under the man, Serebrier is clearly a great admirer of Stokowsi, but surely the better choice would have been to dump the Glazunov and put some more of his efforts in at the start. Indeed, so glaringly inappropriate was this encore I am moved to create an award in its honour: The Jose Serebrier Award for Inappropriate Encores, named for its first recipient. Of course, in order to balance and not be too nasty, we should also create the Rachel Barton Pine Award for Encores that Alone Justify the Ticket Price. While clearly named for its first recipient, the second should be retrospective and go to Sakari Oramo for his stunning Finlandia this summer. Don't believe me? I'll leave you with YouTube again, albeit not the Edinburgh performance.

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