The two most substantial works in this all-Russian programme from the Slaithwaite Phil, conducted by Benjamin Ellin, were Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (as orchestrated by Ravel) and Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, in which the piano soloist was the exceptionally-talented Moscow-born Evelyne Berezovsky.
These well-known compositions, with their quotient of famous tunes, make a good concert pairing. This is not simply because they are both either romantic or post-romantic in idiom, but because they both consist of a long sequence of short melodies or variations linked by a central concept.
The Mussorgsky consists of a musical perambulation around an art exhibition, responding in highly diverse ways to a highly diverse sequence of pictures. The Rachmaninov is, of course, a series of variations on a theme, although they are so ingenious that the original melodic material is often archeologically buried.
The challenge for orchestra and conductor in both “Pictures” and “Rhapsody” is to convey an almost symphonic sense of wholeness and development, despite the episodic material.
The Slaithwaite Phil and conductor Ellin generally succeeded in this. Pictures at an Exhibition received a highly satisfying performance, culminating in a “Great Gate of Kiev” in which the Town Hall organ contributed to a thrilling finale. Along the way, the movement named “Bydio” – evoking a herd of lumbering cattle – was particularly atmospheric, and the haunting saxophone solo in “The Old Castle” was sonorous enough to fill the hall.
The pianistic demands of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody are immense, and despite being aged just 24, Evelyne Berezovsky proved able to meet them. She was especially impressive during and after the famous, rather gloopy eighteenth variation – a big romantic theme followed by some sequences that take the piano to the limits of virtuosity. The soloist brought the work to triumphant conclusion, well served by conductor and orchestra.
The concert also featured two well-known shorter works – Khachaturian’s Adagio from Spartacus (we no longer need to mention The Onedin Line in connection with this piece, do we?) and Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italian. The latter was the concert warm-up piece but it had a lot of nice details, such as a very well controlled pianissimo from the strings before the emergence of the “big tune”. Some delightfully florid cornet playing also caught the ear.