Stravinsky: Myths & Rituals is a brilliant celebration of the Russian composer – review

Esa-Pekka Salonen

London’s prolifically sprawling concert life always seems to be most satisfying when it comes into focus through an intelligently themed series. More often than not in recent years, the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen have supplied that better than anyone else, and their newly launched Stravinsky: Myths & Rituals is no exception. Brilliantly contexualised by the series consultant Jonathan Cross, this celebration of Stravinsky comes backed up with a richly documented programme book. The whole enterprise is also a fine tribute to the vision of the Philharmonia’s long-standing managing director, David Whelton, who retires this summer.

Entitled “Tales”, this concert turned the spotlight on the compact, one-off works Stravinsky wrote for the lyric stage during the early years of his exile from Russia roughly a century ago — mostly composed in Switzerland, all premiered in Paris. Nostalgia certainly haunts Renard, a burlesque based on children’s rhymes and evoking the rough side of the farmyard.

Renard’s absurdist, pantomimic aspect was ideally brought to life in Irina Brown’s staging; in costumes by Louis Price and choreography by Quinny Sacks, the four singers and four dancers seemed to step out of a constructivist picture, complete with hammer and sickle. The singers, from St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, gave full weight to their lines. Yet even in a score including the dusky cimbalom, the music seldom sounds quite so expressive as it did here: Salonen shaped a taut yet loving performance.

Orchestras tend to make a habit of taking Stravinsky out of the theatre, but not in this series. In a concert proclaiming his theatrical originality, the satirical, Pushkin-inspired Mavra hit the mark again thanks to a simple staging. The soprano Natalya Pavlova caught the haunting tone of Parasha’s lament, and the tenor Artyom Melikhov was strong as her hussar sweetheart who takes up residence disguised as the new cook, “Mavra”.

Nothing reflects Stravinsky’s originality more strikingly than Les Noces, with its battery of percussion and four pianos (the quartet led here by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, no less), solo singers and chorus (Philharmonia Voices). But the visual side of this performance diluted its biting effect, as old cyrillic script scrolled decoratively down a giant screen with the dreariness of endless rain. At least Salonen paced things well, ultimately evoking the primitivist wedding rituals with syncopated edge. The lingering tintinnabulation of the close is a reminder that Stravinsky was one of those Russian composers who could never leave the sound of bells behind.