The Best Possible Case Made for Dvořák’s Unfairly Maligned Piano Concerto

12/10/2018

Sibelius, Dvořák, Bartók: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Karina Canellakis (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 10.10.2018. (CS)

Karina Canellakis (c) Mathias Bothor

Karina Canellakis (c) Mathias Bothor

SibeliusPohjola’s Daughter Op.49
Dvořák – Piano Concerto in G minor Op.33
Bartók – Concerto for Orchestra Sz.116

There are some programmes that, when one is leafing through the season’s offerings, immediately catch one’s eye and propel one towards the box office.  It might be the opportunity to hear a seldom-performed work, a favourite soloist or conductor, or a striking juxtaposition that makes a particular listing stand out from the crowd.  This concert by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, in which conductor Karina Canellakis was making her debut with the orchestra, didn’t at first glance seem particularly striking: three works faintly linked by the tinge of nationalism, rich orchestrations and potent story-telling.  But, two recent musical experiences encouraged me not simply to turn the page but to head to the Royal Festival Hall.  First, I’d enjoyed the results of the combination of no-nonsense efficiency and sensitive expression which Canellakis displayed at the Proms this summer and, second, I have rather a soft spot for Dvořák’s infrequently performed and oft-maligned Piano Concerto, having been won over by Stephen Hough’s championing of the work, and his recent recording on the Hyperion label. And, in the event, the evening’s music-making exceeded my hopeful expectations.

Frequently disparaged for its pianistic ineffectiveness – ‘written as if for two right hands’ has been a frequently complaint, or in Hough’s words, ‘for ten thumbs’ – and the inconsistency of its melodic invention, the Concerto even suffered the humiliation of being supplemented by Wilém Kurz’s re-working of the solo part when it was published in Otakar Šourek’s Complete Edition of the composer’s works.  Pierre-Laurent Aimard didn’t make it seem hard work, though.  There was a clarity and lightness that carried the Allegro agitato forward, fluidly and persuasively; the music seemed to float above buoyant celli and double bass pizzicato, and Canellakis created space for the solo lines to speak easily through the sometimes dense textures.  This was disciplined playing from the LPO.  Aimard was able to venture an almost imperceptible first entry – a relaxed entry into the conversation rather than a struggle to be heard – and he found a brightness, even sparkle, in the passages of running thirds.  His pleasure in the piano’s exchanges with the orchestra was evident, and Canellakis’s supportive approach – the work is more symphonic discussion that combative competition – was effective, with judicious injections of drama from pungent woodwind and surging strings.  There was no exhibitionism from Aimard in the virtuosic cadenza: he sought throughout the movement, to highlight its poise, lyricism and reflective quality – at times one sensed the grace of Mozart, the melodism of Mendelssohn and the pensiveness of Chopin, and if all such parts did not necessarily come together into a coherent whole, then it was no less pleasurable.

That the Andante sostenuto might be rather richer in Romantic resonance was apparent from the gentle warmth of the strings and horns in the opening bars, where Canellakis made much of the strangely nuanced harmony.  Aimard gave the piano song a beautiful ruminative quality, and the prevailing orchestral piano added to the dreaminess.  The piano’s accented call-to-attention at the start of the Allegro con fuoco snapped us from our reverie, though, but here the not-too-hasty tempo chosen by Aimard and Canellakis ensured that the vibrant movement was a dance-like frolic rather than an overblown romp.  The final accelerando demonstrated the control exercised by both soloist and conductor, as the increasing excitement of the close was capped by one last surge into the final few bars.  “Utterly charming,” was the immediate response of my guest, and the audience seemed inclined to concur.  Aimard and Canellakis had given this neglected concerto a good airing – literally and figuratively – and the results were refreshing.

The concert had opened with Sibelius’s ‘symphonic fantasia’, Pohjola’s Daughter.  Canellakis told its mystical, magical tale, derived from the Kalavela, with a musical brush loaded with gloriously diverse colours, truly conjuring an image of the eponymous derisive maiden, astride a rainbow, challenging the smitten Väinämöinen to tie an egg in knots.  The divided celli chords of the opening established a serenity which was quickly expelled by busy string passages and fragments of melody from the woodwind, all anchored by the composer’s characteristic dark undertow – gloriously supplied here by the LPO’s eight-strong double bass section.  The timbral riches were many and diverse: the juxtaposition of glowing bass clarinet and reedy oboes; or the blend of trilling timpani, harp glissandi and flutters from flute and clarinet.  The drama and authority of the performance blossomed into a wild coda which vanished mysteriously into the ether, the double basses aptly having the final, evaporating word.

Canellakis shared a long look with her cellists and double bassists at the start of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.  Their subsequent whisper seemed to herald from the distance, inviting in the muted strings and flutes, and again it was clear that Canellakis had the measure of the drama of this summit of twentieth-century symphonic music.  The transitions between moods were purposeful and her adeptness at communicating precisely and efficiently was as impressive as it had been at the Royal Albert Hall earlier this summer: her baton draws shapes of diverse character and size, one moment swirling delicately, then circling expansively, coaxing intimacy then flicking with quasi-mechanical briskness.  The LPO certainly ‘got’ her messages and played with tremendous style and commitment.  Whether Canellakis quite had full command of the overall arc binding the Concerto’s ebbs and flows, I’m not sure.  After the stern first movement, the flighty duets of the Giuoco delle coppie didn’t seem either quite flippant enough or sufficiently tinged by imminent menace.  But, the Elegia had the right balance of elegance and passion, and a lovely slenderness that imbued details that might seem insubstantial with a telling poetry, while the fugue of the Finale was expertly delineated.

After the premiere of the Concerto, in Boston, in December 1944, which Bartók attended against the advice of his doctors, the rapturous reception reportedly led the composer to remark, ‘It was worth the while’.  This concert by the LPO was very much more than ‘worth the while’.  In 2019, Canellakis becomes Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic; I hope that she finds opportunity to visit London regularly.

Claire Seymour

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