Concert: Rachmaninov and Shostakovich - London, RFH, 13.02.15

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No 4 in G minor (original version)

Shostakovich: Symphony No 4 in C minor

Alexander Ghindin (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vassily Petrenko

Following on from my encounter with Ravel and Dutilleux under Salonen (read about that here) the sound world of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony could be more different so this required an aural handbrake turn overnight for a concert at the Royal Festival Hall with special resonance for me.

Vassily Petrenko conducted this symphony in the summer at the Proms (and I wrote about that here) and it had two profound effects on me.  First, it unlocked the sound world for me - I had failed to that point to get much of Shostakovich's structural constraint and found it hard to find a direction - Symphony No 4 showed me that most times in this composer work there's more than one direction of travel.  Second he revealed how the intricacies of the writing build, on repeated hearings, into powerful influences within the work.  I already knew about the humour in Shostakovich but Petrenko's reading revealed how close that humour is to tragedy all of the time.  So for months after I listened to little else other than Shostakovich - catching up on years of neglect (on my part) and discovering layer after layer of new meaning and wonderful music in his works.  About once a week for 2 months I listened to Petrenko's blistering recording of the Fourth Symphony with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on Naxos.  Eventually I was completely hooked on it's energy at first and then, quite suddenly as it happened, it's darker side was clearer than ever and took me to a different place again.  I referred in my earlier review to it's obstreperous outburst - it seemed intransigent at the time...I was so wrong.

If you haven't heard that recording you should - I have listened to many others (especially on YouTube where wonders of the Russian archive are to be found) no one does it with quite the combination of clinical precision and huge surges of unbridled power.  Though for a experience like driving on ice try Kondrashin in this score. hear Petrenko again with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall was something not to be missed.  Indeed wherever he plays this score it should be heard.  He has a mastery over it that means that we hear more detail and feel more energy from the writing than usual.  Each time I approach it, this symphony rises to the very top of the composer's output in my view.  It is beyond Mahler, and certainly beyond any Russian contemporaries, Shostakovich reveals himself to be a composer of power on a par with Beethoven.

But before all that there was a piano concerto with which my connection might be described as 2G and not wi-fi.  Rachmaninov's Fourth Piano Concerto in it's original version was given by one of it's leading advocates Alexander Ghindin.  He is a fine pianist who was able to switch moods in the work with an easy facility.  The orchestra followed Petrenko's very precise and emphasised signals with care but without a natural flow - partly because this concerto doesn't quite flow for me - and partly because despite their familiarity with Russian music, this isn't quite Russian, suffused with Rachmaninov's attempts to draw on other early twentieth century influences.  It does make sense to hear the original version now and again against the final one which is more familiar.  Both I'm sorry to say leave me cold.

Ghindin got and deserved great applause.  His encore, Rachmaninov's transcription of Tchaikovsky's Lullaby won him even more affection from the audience, a fantastic sweet surprise.  A world away from the Soviet music to come.

The huge orchestra which assembled for the Shostakovich was not as large I reckon as the EU Youth Orchestra at the Proms but I hadn't seen the London Philharmonic Orchestra out in force for some time.  They played this work out of their skins - there were some signs of tiredness by the third movement but the key moments - the hurricane of strings in the first movement, the episodic intimate wind conversations and the build up to, and final collapse of, the music in the last movement, were done very very well.  Petrenko conducts with an acuity which seems very calm until it bursts into sweeping gestures.  His handling of individual woodwind players in exposed solos appears so relaxed and supportive, the strings were given all the help he could muster as textures got thicker.  But his balancing and fastidious cueing of the percussion and brass in the finale were not for show, he was carving out the performance with his players as he went.

As I've listened I can now delicate more than I could last summer just how he creates should great effects in the descent into a very bleak abyss. For a start amongst all the versions I've heard, he seeks a very clear pattern from the timpani, emphasising a mechanistic, ultra industrial backdrop for this descent into hell (much as Wagner might be said to do in reverse in the Verwandlungsmusik transition in Das Rheingold).  His handling of the brass sustained notes is awesome - punching home a very uncomfortable dissonance created by the horns and maintaining it's  as the music around is locked in it's grip.  And his handling of the desolate ending remains a piece of genius.

My mistake in 2014 was to assume this music merely took a swat at system which the bold composer felt confident enough to parody.  I suspect the feeling was much closer to horror than dismay and much more capturing a brutality which is still a hallmark of repression today.  It's sharpest edges though are hidden in something that might appear to be closer to Richard Strauss' younger excesses.  What Petrenko and his players revealed on this evening was a work of very telling detail indeed: terrible consequence when you get to know it, more terrible when you hear Petrenko's reading of the score.  Yes, I will cede that it has some Mahlerian roots, but it's drama is far more telling, personal, hideous and disastrous because it is the story of a collective horror, not a personal journey.

I left the hall shaking.  The adrenalin rush left my mouth dry and bitter.  I walked across Hungerford Bridge quite unaware that I was getting wet through.  It was a great performance for those of us who saw and heard it: I couldn't see any microphones present.  It was an astonishing rendition of a reading so perfectly and simply formed.  And it was the finest LPO concert I've heard in a long time.


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