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BBC SO/Sinaisky/Chang, Barbican, London

05.10.07
Sarah Chang
The Independent

The BBC Symphony Orchestra presented an intriguing programme from pre-Soviet, Soviet and post-Soviet times, but under Vassily Sinaisky - from those parts, and the chief guest conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, so a bit of a house conductor - the performances suggested that rehearsal time had been far from equal or adequate.

The real curio that appeared to have grabbed the time came last in the programme: Skryabin's barely performed Second Symphony. It's a monstrous piece in structure, forces and length, in five movements, although the First feels like an introduction to the Second, and the Fourth serves the same purpose as the Fifth. It opens with brooding, troubled strings under a clarinet solo that spells Tchaikovsky and Sibelius, and soon Wagner. Fateful melancholy and banal cheerfulness sit side by side, spiced with the augmented harmonies so loved by Skryabin.

The music surges and swells but remains utterly conventional, although nationalistic gestures and bombast are occasionally offset by a momentary diaphanous passage.

The slow movement - a "Garden of Delight" - features twittering flute and coy violin solo (well dispatched by the principal and leader) in a harmonic texture that is lush, overripe and soggy - 19th-century Romanticism well past its sell-by date. As for the tub-thumping finale, the less said the better.

Before the Skryabin, a real masterpiece had left us gasping. Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto had been stupendously performed by Sarah Chang with all her innate musical understanding, belying the piece's ferocious technical demands. Her long opening solo was beautifully coloured and shaped, her hooded sound leading to soaring, passionate fullness, tenderness and melancholy there in equal measure.

But in the Scherzo, suspicions about Sinaisky's involvement seemed confirmed: shaky ensemble between soloist and orchestra; balance where at the beginning the wind was scarcely audible; and, worst of all, Sinaisky's plodding tempo and polite leading in direct contrast to the stamping, flaring, driven soloist.

After the crude orchestral beginning of the great Passacaglia, Chang played to melt hearts and induce tears. In the Cadenza, taking risk after risk, she triumphed in Shostakovich's dice with death, breaking so much hair on her bow that she was soon grabbing the leader's.

The Georgian composer Giya Kancheli's Noch einen Schritt, receiving its London premiere, set the scene, a finely crafted lament for times past and present.