Review: CPO’s Alexander Nevsky

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Alexander Nevsky
Photo: Yevgeny Kutik

I was more than a bit excited about this programme, not least because Daniel Boico always brings fireworks to the conductor’s podium. Great was my disappointment, though, to discover that Richard Strauss’s tone poem, Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), as promised on the CPO’s website, had been replaced with a Haydn symphony. Thankfully it was not too long, and balanced the programme well.

The conductor, by his own admission, also has little interest in Haydn. But instead of leading a perfunctory rendition of the 104th symphony, his interpretation was a delightful surprise. Boico’s conducting was bouncy and playful, making the most of Haydn’s cat-and-mouse stops and resumes. The orchestra retained a conventional modern layout, but Boico still extracted lightness from their full sound.
An historically performed performance this was not. The audience didn’t seem to mind, though – they were euphoric after the third movement. To quell their enthusiastic ovation, the conductor had to tell them “One more!”, since the fourth movement was still to be performed.

Henryk Wieniawski’s second violin concerto presents the height of Romantic era passion, and Russian-born US violinist Yevgeny Kutik was more than equal to the task. His performance brimmed with expression. He blazed through the most virtuoso passages, delivering a physical performance that called upon every muscle in his body. It caused some distracting foot-stomping, though, as well as a few instances of inaccurate intonation, especially when descending to the lower register. The middle movement, in contrast, was played with tear-jerking sensitivity. His youthful exuberance made for an exciting performance, and he received a standing ovation. He returned for an encore – a beautifully intimate solo Bach piece.

Prokofiev’s ‘Alexander Nevsky’ started life as the score to Sergei Eisenstein’s eponymous 1938 film, and was reworked as a cantata in seven movements in 1939.

The Philharmonia Choir introduced the titular hero with folk melodies. Their Russian pronunciation was remarkable, and their best singing came in the three Russian movements. The invasion of the evil Teutonic Crusaders, heralded by Latin text, was a different matter. The choir struggled to latch onto the conductor’s tempo in this slow and dramatic movement.

The following folk song, a rousing anthem, calls the Russian people to arms. Thereafter comes a battle scene on a frozen lake, again sung in Latin. This is the climax of the piece. High register playing illustrates the frozen battlefield. The Latin requiem mass music of the Crusaders alternates and clashes with heroic Russian folk songs. The whole orchestra emerged here as victors, but I need to single out the percussion and brass sections for their heroism. The choir didn’t quite have enough volume to match an orchestra in battle mode.

As the battle died down, Violina Anguelov entered the stage from the left. Her funereal walk through the string section was a sombre depiction of the horrors of war. She haunted the audience with her melancholic voice, singing an ode to the brave fallen soldiers. Her departure was even more sorrowful than her arrival. A jubilant hero’s welcome to a victorious Alexander concludes the cantata.

With the spectre of a new rise of fascism looming over the world, the Philharmonia Choir of Cape Town may well be granted a pardon by Vladimir Putin after he becomes Emperor of Earth. At least the dark side of the Iron Curtain has left us with a spectacular soundtrack to usher in the end of days.

Rudolph Maré
www.rudolphmare.com

Yevgeny Kutik and the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Boico, performed at Cape Town City Hall on 24 November 2016 as part of their Spring Symphony Season.

Haydn – Symphony no. 104 in D Major, ‘London’

Wieniawski – Violin Concerto no. 2 in d Minor
Prokofiev – Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78

Conductor:
Daniel Boico

Soloists:
Yevgeny Kutik (Violin)
Violina Anguelov (mezzo-soprano)
Philharmonia Choir of Cape Town (Choirmaster: Richard Haigh)

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