Weber/Berlioz, Beethoven and Stravinsky from the RPO

Weber/Berlioz, Beethoven, Stravinsky : Nikolai Lugansky (Piano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (Conductor), Royal Festival Hall 8.6.2011 (RBB)

Weber, orch Berlioz: Invitation to the Dance Op 65

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 Op 58

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Martha Argerich was originally scheduled to play the Schumann piano concerto at this concert but was indisposed. Nikolai Lugansky stepped into the breach at short notice and played the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto instead. There were more empty seats in the auditorium than I was expecting so I can only assume that some of the audience sought refunds following Argerich’s withdrawal which is a great shame as Lugansky, a former winner of the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, is a highly accomplished artist and virtuoso.

Weber’s Invitation to the Dance was originally written for piano and it consists of a sequence of brilliant waltzes cast in rondo form, which are framed by a prologue and epilogue. Berlioz was a great admirer of Weber’s music and orchestrated the work as a contribution to a production of Weber’s Der Freischutz at the Paris Opera. The orchestra’s principal cellist, Jesper Svedberg, opened the proceedings with an expressive and beautifully crafted melodic line, which was answered by the orchestra’s wind section. The RPO did a good job with the waltz sequence that followed and there was some crisp articulation in the strings and well-sequenced dialogue between the strings and wind. I thought they could have made more of the lilt and swing of Weber’s waltz rhythms and Dutoit seemed slightly disengaged but it was a good performance nevertheless.

The Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto has a remarkably unconventional opening for the time it was written with the soloist playing the opening theme and the orchestra responding in the remote key of B major. The andante slow movement was likened by Liszt to Orpheus taming the wild beasts with his lyre and the final rondo is a boisterous, happy affair. Lugansky has a phenomenal technique so it was clear the technical difficulties of the concerto were not going to pose a problem to him notwithstanding his standing in at short notice.

There were some signs that the work suffered from a lack of preparation with a few untidy passages in the orchestra in the opening exposition. Lugansky appeared to view the concerto in a very refined and classically restrained way. His playing was very measured, the phrasing immaculate and the passagework extremely well executed. His tone was slightly dry for my taste and there seemed to be a lack of emotional engagement with the piece, particularly in the first movement, although this may have been down to having to stand in for Argerich at short notice. He seemed to be more engaged in the haunting slow movement and projected the pianissimo opening very well. The pulse was very steady in the exuberant finale and the passagework very even. Once again, however, Lugansky seemed to be going through the motions rather than letting himself go. Overall, I thought this was a valiant effort by both soloist and orchestra, given the circumstances.

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was originally commissioned by the impresario Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes. The painter Nicholas Roerich provided the original conception for the ballet and it was choreographed by Diaghilev’s gay lover Vaslav Nijinski. The ballet is in two parts, ‘The Adoration of the Earth’ and ‘The Sacrifice’ and it depicts a pagan ritual culminating in the sacrifice of a young girl. Stravinsky’s score was very adventurous for the time as it uses percussive dissonance, polyrhythms, polytonality, and West African primitivism. The initial performance in 1913 at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris, conducted by Pierre Monteux, resulted in one of the most famous riots in musical history. Even nowadays The Rite, with its depiction of ritualised sexual violence, retains the power to shock and provoke audiences.

Both Dutoit and the RPO significantly upped their game for The Rite. The opening bassoon solo was soulful and expressive and the wind section seemed to lose all their inhibitions in the ensuing poly- and asymmetrical rhythms. The strings really brought out the dissonances and dug into the strings in the ‘Dance of the Young Girls’ while the brass section blasted out the dissonant fanfares in the ‘Ritual of the Rival Tribes’. Dutoit worked the orchestra up to a pitch of feverish excitement in the ‘Dance of the Earth’ although the rhythmic exchanges and entries could have been marginally sharper.

The opening of Part II was suitably atmospheric although slightly sluggish in places. The orchestra cut loose again for the ‘Glorification of the Chosen One’ with its rhythmic primitivism although once again some of the entries could have been marginally sharper. The final ‘Sacrificial Dance’ had all the necessary ingredients of grotesque, ritualised violence as Dutoit drew down the curtain on the orchestra’s barnstorming performance.

Robert Beattie