Of course, most concerts are of two halves separated by the interval. However, tonight’s concert is very sharply separated: the first half with some fine orchestral and piano playing, the second with some less than successful choral work.
The concert opens with Prokofiev’s delightful First Symphony, and under the baton of their music director, Thomas Søndergård, the orchestra positively sparkle. Indeed, at times we could be listening to Haydn, with just the occasional Russian theme to remind us of the symphony’s origins. It seems extraordinary that this lively joyous work was composed in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, and first performed in “Petrograd” in 1918, its name already changed by the revolution!
The first half continues with another Russian work but from a much earlier period: Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, which stems from 1875. It is played by the great young Russian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk, who was a child prodigy and gave his first concert aged 9! Now he is 34 and one of the top pianists in the world, and of course no one plays Tchaikovsky like a Russian pianist: he attacks it from the beginning, bringing out the drama and the melody in the work. The RSNO under Søndergård respond magnificently, and create a perfect Russian first half of the concert.
Sadly, the second half of the concert doesn’t live up to the standards of the first. It comprises two choral works, the first of these a suite of songs about the First World War (it is, of course, Armistice weekend) by Ken Johnson, which was premiered this year in Glasgow by the National Youth Choir of Scotland under Christopher Bell. Today, it is sung by Glasgow Cambiata, a choir of young people in Glasgow put together by their conductor, Frikki Walker. Whilst it is good to hear young people singing and clearly enjoying themselves, they aren’t up to the standard of NYCOS under Bell. Also, although the songs they sing under the title All Those Men Who Marched Away have interesting texts reflecting the illusions and pity of war, musically the songs are underwhelming.
The second choral work, Poulenc’s Gloria, is of a much higher standard. We have the excellent RSNO Chorus, under the direction of Gregory Batsleer, and an excellent Swedish soprano, Elin Rombo, singing the solo parts. The problem lies with the work itself. Written by Poulenc after he had found God again, it is one of the last works he wrote, premiered in 1961 just before he died. It is very Catholic and quite heavy. It is also very bitty, each part seeming very separate, and therefore the music doesn’t flow. It feels unsatisfactory, and although played well by the orchestra, and sung well by both the chorus and Rambo, it fails to convince.
So a concert of two halves: a Russian tour de force, followed by a disappointing choral second half. Well, sometimes you can’t win them all. It’s worth noting that there is a rather thin audience tonight, with the Usher Hall only half full. Of course, there are many other musical alternatives in Edinburgh this Armistice weekend, so perhaps it isn’t just the programming that caused such a low attendance.