Dazzling Russian Music Fare by the Oxford Philharmonic

30/10/2017

Rachmaninov and Shostakovich: Khatia Buniatishvili (piano), Oxford Philharmonic / Mario Papadopoulos (conductor), Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 26.10.2017. (CR)

Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18
Shostakovich – Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Presumably timed to fall near the centennial anniversary of the Russian Revolution, this programme featured the music of two composers of different generations whose creative and personal lives were, nonetheless, indelibly marked by that seminal event in history.

Rachmaninov’s famous and ever-popular Second Piano Concerto (premiered in its complete form in 1901) encompasses the sort of lushly Romantic melodiousness that the Soviet regime would later come to repudiate as Western, bourgeois, and therefore un-Soviet. The Oxford Philharmonic, under Marios Papadopoulos’s direction, certainly relished the high emotion of the work for their part with an effusive performance of the surging orchestra part. In contrast, Khatia Buniatishvili at the piano was poised and controlled in her interpretation, that was even somewhat impersonal, but she was never fazed by what was going on around her, such that the solo instrument seemed to be playing along with the orchestra rather than the other way around. There were passages where the sound from the piano was swamped by that of the orchestra, but Buniatishvili remained firmly on course, emerging again with clarity and precision in the passages where the piano part comes to the fore of the texture again.

That did not preclude moments of tenderness where both the orchestral and instrumental forces delineated passages of great intimacy and reflection, though the usually irresistible melancholy of the Adagio sostenuto second movement was somewhat undermined by a tentative and dry clarinet solo. But emotional tension and involvement were instilled by the orchestra with their fervent, full-toned sonority, which it seemed that Buniatishvili was wishing to tame with her solo entries. If the finale was also full in volume, bordering on the heavy-handed, the brisk, skittish tempo certainly kept the music moving and emphasised the movement’s Allegro scherzando marking. This presented no problems for Buniatishvili who thrived on the dash towards the exhilarating end, sweeping up the momentum of the performance up to that point and assuming control of it to the terse, triumphant concluding flourish.

Buniatishvili dazzled the audience with her rendition of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.2, despatched with so much effortless ease as though it were merely child’s play. It was not the obvious tricks of hammering away at the keyboard that impressed, but her tight control of the welter of notes in a version of the work that was possibly her own, featuring extra ornamentations and glissandi in the vigorous, major-key second part, and played at about twice the normal speed.

The mood was no less feverish for Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, though the tempos were generally moderate. After a quietly probing, rather than dramatic opening, and the long-sustained, mysterious melody high up in the strings made more hollow and gaunt by very little use of vibrato, the first movement’s melee took off in earnest with a boisterous account of the fearful march at the centre of it. The sense of terror held over even as the music simmered down leaving the ghostly tones on the celesta, seeming to hark back to the ominous mood that concludes the Fourth Symphony, early criticisms of which prompted the composer to withdraw it before its premiere.

Appropriately shrill woodwind heralded the ironically jaunty and affable second movement (essentially a scherzo in form) which the Oxford Philharmonic handled with a suitably Mahlerian character in the interplay of its orchestral parts, but its sturdy rhythms in Papadopoulos’s interpretation remained too earthbound, and the violin and flute solos could have been a touch more buoyant. The orchestra’s strings held the long, tense Largo with steadiness and presence, evoking more a psychological landscape of loneliness and abandonment, rather than any exterior scene or narrative. The finale returned to the bluster of the first movement, with an impressive and unanimous body of sound from the orchestra, not least in the hollow triumph of its coda, but engaging enough with the score as it stands so as to make the work’s ultimate message ambiguous, reflecting Shostakovich’s own complicated and fraught relationship with the Soviet authorities. The desperation of earlier passages in this movement for the strings in particular here, as played by the orchestra – bringing to mind the bewilderment and fear of some sections of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony – rightly brought to the fore the darker aspects of Shostakovich’s composition, filling out a performance from Papadopoulos that maintained a cogent course both structurally and emotionally.

Curtis Rogers

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