sat 25/05/2019

The Mighty Handful, ROH Orchestra, Pappano, Royal Opera House | reviews, news & interviews

The Mighty Handful, ROH Orchestra, Pappano, Royal Opera House

The Mighty Handful, ROH Orchestra, Pappano, Royal Opera House

Lively Russian nationalist goody-bag not quite filled to the brim

Antonio Pappano in rehearsal with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera HouseClive Barda

What fun it must have been to attend any of the St Petersburg Free Music School concerts during the second half of the 19th century. Balakirev, idiosyncratic mentor of the group briefly together as the "Mighty Handful", and his acolytes – Borodin, Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and the one we usually don't mention, César Cui – would have had orchestral works and sometimes the odd aria from an opera-in-progress on the programme, often alongside music by their western idols Berlioz, Liszt and Schumann. If something wasn't ready, which was often the case, colleagues would help out or offer a replacement.

Balakirev and company might have looked a bit askance at the relatively short measure in the second of Antonio Pappano's annual programmes with his Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, a kind of contextual taster for the forthcoming Boris Godunov, but they would have loved his enthusiasm and energy, which extended to pleasant introductions to both halves of the concert.

Borodin by RepinFrom a feast of colourful scores by "the Five", any number of courses could have been selected. Perhaps the only obvious one on Pappano's menu, apart from the minute-long "Flight of the Bumble-bee" from Rimsky-Korsakov's Tsar Saltan, was Borodin's Second Symphony, the real meat of the evening (the composer pictured right by Ilya Repin). Pappano got the Royal Opera strings to dig deep into the leonine offcuts from Prince Igor; at the other end of the scale, principal clarinet and horn wrought magic at the beginning and end of the bardic song in the slow movement.

All the performance lacked was depth to the lyric melodies, both here and in the bird-rich forest and battlefield of Rimsky-Korsakov's Invisible City of Kitezh (we could have done with the wedding balalaika imitations and Straussian apotheosis of the suite from the opera, too). Funny, but I look back with fondness on the heart of dark oak Gergiev used to get in such themes during his heyday at the Mariinsky/Kirov Theatre. But then the Royal Opera House as a concert venue didn't help with warmth or perspective. Enough to make one all the more grateful for the adequate Festival Hall or the Barbican; it's dry and pitiless to the orchestra on the stage, for all the handsome wood surrounds.

For that reason the original, incoherent but exciting romp of Musorgsky's original 1867 St John's Night on Bare Mountain (the composer pictured below by Repin, at the end of his life) came off best. Its bald scoring came across as positively hair-raising, from the first fortissimo skedaddling of the witches – not flying in from a distance as in Rimsky-Korsakov's more familiar 1882 arrangement – to the whole-tone romps of the fierce conclusion. Rimsky arranged it all better as a sequence, of course, but Pappano made a ferocious argument for the rawness of the original.

Musorgsky by RepinAn interlude in the short second half came in the shape of the Prelude to Act III of Cui's William Ratcliff. A vocal soloist would have been necessary to give a fair portrait of this once-popular operatic composer – he wrote no less than 15 operas – and all the brief setting-up of love music in the midst of the murderous Scottish mayhem Cui drew from Heine's bloody original was to suggest a heart-on-sleeve kinship with later Italian intermezzos. (Mascagni's Guglielmo Ratcliff, of course, has had an airing; Cui's, never to my knowledge.)

Fireworks ended the show with Balakirev's giddying oriental fantasy Islamey, exoticism from the fringes of the Russian empire being a key tenet of the Handful's nationalism. Here there might have been a showing of self-orchestrated genius in the shape of the slow-working leader's Overture on Three Russian Themes or symphonic poem Tamara, but Pappano needed no justification for choosing the arrangement of the fiendishly difficult piano piece by his fellow-Italian Casella. Respighi couldn't have done a more coruscating job on it, and if you didn't travel home singing the gorgeous, cor anglais-led oriental melody at the heart of the work as I did, that wouldn't have been the fault of Pappano's brilliant finale.

Pappano got the Royal Opera strings to dig deep into Borodin's leonine offcuts from 'Prince Igor'

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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