Thursday's Oxford Philharmonic concert was an all-Russian affair in three senses. The programme of Russian music was interpreted by conductor and piano soloist from that country, and the orchestra's strings section contained a healthy scattering of players originating from Russia or ex-Soviet Union countries.The Sheldonian was gratifyingly full as Glinka's overture to Ruslan and Lumila, an opera adorned by the likes of dwarves, magicians, witches, and swords that sap the strength of their brandisher. The opening bars burst upon us like a thunderclap, with first all the strings, then timpani, then wind section called into frantic action. I was momentarily set to wondering how an amateur strings section, had it been prone in the habitual manner of amateurs to take its time in warming up, might have coped with the
challenge. As it was, the Oxford Philharmonic was out of the traps like a starving greyhound, and maintained the hectic momentum until the loudly-rattling timpani of Tristan Fry brought us to a rousing conclusion.
Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini from 1934 is an admirably concise set of variations, coming in at not much more than 22 minutes, and it shows him at his most skilful. I've seen it said that Rachmaninov spent his life writing the same work over and over again, and accused of self-indulgence (though he himself was the least sentimental interpreter of his own music). This Rhapsody, though, surely refutes these criticisms, since not a note is wasted. Nick Breckenfield's ever-helpful notes listed each of the 24 variations and, crucially, its marked tempo.
After the opening orchestral flourish, soloist Anna Tsybuleva set about her work - just the basic outline of the theme, before the strings follow with the theme proper. Tsybuleva hails from Moscow, and arrived in Britain on Monday. Before returning to Moscow she will be fulfilling concerts in Sidmouth and for the Chopin Society in London. In Variations 5 and 6 the cord that binds the composer to Paganini is severed ,and in the little cadenzas cutting across the original theme Tsybuleva demonstrated her very light touch on the keyboard, stroking the keys like a cat preening a basket of kittens. She surmounted with insouciance the chord-playing difficulties of Variation 8, and then in Variation 10 Temirkanov, through the sound of full brass and percussion, emphasized how Rachmaninov was influenced by the jazzy musical vogue surrounding him in his adopted America.
In Variation 15 Tsybuleva, concentrating fiercely, crouched like a panther over the keys in the lower register for her scintillating solo passage here. I noticed that she possesses unusually long fingers and they rippled across the keyboard for the big tune, the 'andante cantabile' of Variation 18, music for a Sleeping Beauty in a forest where no bird sings. She brought us at last to Rachmaninov's almost throwaway ending, concluding a memorable performance. It seemed a bit cheese-paring, however, that no encore was forthcoming in view of the warmth of the applause given to her, and also given that the piece comes in at less than 25 minutes in length.
After the interval Yuri Temirkanov took centre stage for Scheherazade, the orchestra now bolstered by a percussion section of six and its leader, Carmine Lauri, taking the role of Scheherazade, the spinner of stories. He has been the director of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic for the past 30 years. He's now 78 and looks a good 20 years older than his publicity photos. But there was nothing diminished about his presence or vitality on the podium, nor on the activity of his schedule: flying in from St Petersburg on Tuesday and returning home soon after the concert.
tentatively suggested but did not insist upon titles from the 1,001 Nights for the four movements, but
they're oddly chosen since three of them are among the more obscure tales. The
famously rich orchestration of this symphonic poem means that with every
hearing one discovers new things upon which to focus: here Temirkanov was
keen to bring in the full forces of the massed violins, constantly flicking out
the fingers of his left hand like a wounded bird. Whether he was satisfied with
the rather breathy bassoon solos did not appear, but he took the marvellous
passage for oboe over the harp in the second movement at a full lick and
concluded the movement with a scurrying oriental flourish.
The march properties of the piece in the 'andantino' and 'allegro' were emphasized – the Orchestra's cello section is always a delight to hear - and then the narrative of the final movement was delivered in a mode fast, articulate and tempestuous before finding a breath-holding intensity on the last page. Here Lauri ascended high beyond the now-diminished orchestral forces, playing at the very upper limit of his fiddle's capability as Scheherazade celebrates with a wry smile her final victory over the cruelty of her husband-to-be.