Review: Alexandra Dariescu and the Moscow Philharmonic play Rachmaninov Piano Concerto 2 and Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet

I was cutting things a little fine arriving in my seat panting and sweating just as the first chord of Tchaikovsky’s Overture to Romeo and Juliet sounded. By its inclusion – 5 minutes longer than the billed duration – my heart rate had reduced and my face and neck had dried off. Conductor Yuri Simonov took the work, even in its fast sections, at a surprisingly slow pace so that slow bits felt rather long and drawn out. Consequently, the the yearning and the emotional rushes never really felt convincing. It was as though Romeo’s heart wasn’t really in it and Juliet just felt relieved when it was all over.

Cadogan Hall’s acoustic is arguably the most demanding space to play in. There is nowhere to hide. Errors are then distracting. That’s not altogether a bad thing – it often means a deeper appreciation of what’s involved in a live performance is laid bare and it’s possible to notice when an ensemble has become used to the concert hall with its audience ensconced. So whilst there were some disappointing errors in intonation and ensemble in the woodwind in the first 10 minutes of the piece, that things were consolidated into a richer unified more passionate sound in the final section created something real with a story of eventual triumph. I just would have liked it a little faster.

My probable impatience with proceedings continued in the Rachmaninov. Dariescu is an assured performer – resilient, accommodating and strong. There’s lyricism in her right hand in all the places, and an enviable strength where the score demands. But there were times when it felt like Simonov was wanting to go at his pace and not hers. Some of the energy – that Hollywood verve and brio that I think exudes Rachmaninov’s movie-gold sound-world – petered out.

That said, there were some blissful gossamer string textures in the upper strings during the second movement. The Cadogan Hall acoustic also revealed some pleasing detail in the cello line and woodwind.

At times Simonov paid more attention to the strings than communicating with the soloist. In the second movement this projected Dariescu as a paradoxically lonely figure on stage. This emphasised the pathos of the second movement though I suspect that was by accident than design.

One of two most trusted pals

As it’s World Mental Health Day, it seemed timely to rewrite and update a blog I’ve published before. The bonus for those who read it before is that this time it’s all a lot more concise. And for those who are new to this blog, its a chance to understand why classical music remains an important part of my life.

Twenty-seven years ago or so I experienced an unexpected, deeply unsettling and confusing event which brought about the biggest personal challenges in my life.

It was only in 2016 when I saw a play at the Edinburgh Fringe about male rape that I began to understand that my experience, although not rape, was in the category of sexual assault. And, importantly, how such experiences are inherently confusing as well as being shocking.

The details aren’t especially important to this post – I don’t really want to delve again. I’m not sure it necessarily helps anyone. I certainly don’t need to. They’re not especially unique or especially harrowing. What’s important here is the impact the experience had on my mental health and everything else.

It catapulted me into depression, brought about a nerve-related ‘identity crisis’. It ushered in drug-related and psychiatric therapies. It threatened my studies, my A-Levels, my university career and, I re-discovered a few weeks ago, it prevented me from embarking on teaching training course because the college where my place had been accepted had gained access to my psychiatric notes and deemed me a threat to children.

All this inevitably placed a variety of special relationships under immense pressure.

Everyone delivered. I remain indebted.

One particular moment in time was particularly dark. The first term of my third year at university. ‘Plans’ were made. The only thing which kept me from pursuing a self-inflicted fatal path were my commitments to practical music making with members of the university music society.

This critical moment in time took seven or eight weeks to reach a manageable and sustainable conclusion. Weekly rehearsals of the university wind orchestra put me back on track, chasing the dark clouds away on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Fridays and Saturday were the precarious days. Sundays and Mondays were the days I was preparing for the next rehearsal. The end of term rehearsal sealed the deal and, thankfully, rock bottom was left far far behind.

There were wobbles that followed – some I’ve been reminded of recently flicking through some personal diaries a few weeks ago – but November 1993 and the role that classical music, participatory music making and my student friends combined all helped the subsequent turn-around.

The counter-experience – the ‘treatment’ if you’d prefer a slightly more blunt work – was a sense of routine, personal responsibility to others, and discipline. Conducting was something which helped me make a connection with my own personal values. Classical music saved me.

Since that time I’ve returned to classical music as a listener, a commentator, an arts manager, and a content producer. Sometimes classical music has provided an escape. At one time it provided me with inspiration for content. Now it is a world I feel most at home in. In recent years – especially since completing my coaching training – classical music has been a way for me to self-identify where my thoughts and feelings are at any given moment in time. Classical music as an emotional barometer. A trusted pal.

It could have easily been a different music genre. I know that others have derived the same benefits from rock, pop, punk, electronica, dance. But I remain indebted to a long-standing trusted pal – classical music – that continues to sustain my mental health, stimulate my thinking and, importantly, create lasting valued friendships.

I couldn’t do without it.

Inclusive, celebratory and touching

Coalesce around a subject or an event and, if there’s a sense of loss attached to it, the classical music community has the power to celebrate and advocate in an inclusive and respectful way.

Unlike a lot of what I saw on various digital platforms yesterday, I wasn’t especially touched, broken, devastated or bereft by the news of soprano Jessye Norman’s death.

I was aware of her career of course, but her work had passed me by. I know. That sounds incredible given the love and respect rightfully bestowed in her lifetime and in the event of her death by many. That lack of awareness is perhaps even embarrassing.

A defence.

My musical focus has always been on orchestral repertoire. I recognise I always have to make an active choice to listen to vocal repertoire (and always have done) in the same way I have to force myself to watch action movies with my husband. Odd, I know.

The news and people’s reactions to the 74 year old’s death highlighted one of my musical blind spots.

But what really cut through amid the outpouring of sorrow, regret, recollections and executive posturing, were messages that struck a good balance of paying homage but avoiding self-indulgence – messages that effectively introduced ‘newcomers’ to Norman’s landmark recordings.

The Ulster Orchestra’s tweet in particular hit the mark for me – a low-key acknolwedgement of the passing of a great singer, an implicit statement on how staff were reflecting on it, and a knowledge-driven signpost to a must-listen recording.

I listened to her recording Strauss’ Four Last Songs repeatedly all day as a result, marvelling at the texture and power of her voice. A new discovery made.

Similarly, @morrisonkenny’s recollection of the impact hearing the soprano’s voice for the first time had on him.

Kenny’s anecdote prompted me to reflect on the way in which I was introduced to classical music (through school), the limited repertoire we had on record at home (none), and how studies even at University were surprisingly limited. My listening development really kicked off when I started working in the arts. But still, my natural ‘home’ was orchestral music. I almost envied Kenny’s experience, now I come to think of it.

In this way (and the way that others shared their favourite recordings) the classical music world – the fans – unexpectedly felt inclusive. An unexpected event had triggered other people’s experiences which, once you filtered out some of the emotional hyperbole, actually achieved more in opening up to a newcomer a newcomer hitherto hidden away.

There is something rather touching about that. A beautiful kind of simplicity. A straightforward kind of advocacy that has opened a door to something new fronted by talent who in death provides a potent reminder of the political challenges we still face, long after she first triumphed in the industry.

All that from an unexpected death and a couple of tweets.

There is a blueprint to be drawn from this. Coalesce around a subject or an event and, if there’s a sense of loss attached to it, the classical music community has the power to celebrate and advocate in an inclusive and respectful way.

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