Substitute Soloist and Conductor disappoint at the Royal Festival Hall

Berlioz, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky: Nikolai Demidenko (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra/Christian Vasquez (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 30.6.2011 (GD)

Berlioz, Overture, Le carnival romaine, Op. 9

Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30

Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op.74, ‘Pathetique’

This concert was to have been conducted by Mikhail Pletnev with Denis Matsuev as piano soloist, but both Pletnev and Matsuev were indisposed and had to cancel. The replacement pianist was the Russian Nikolai Demidenko, and the young Venezuelan conductor Christian Vasquez stood in for Pletnev. The original opening work by Glazunov was replaced by the Berlioz overture.

The original programme would have given more continuity to the Russian tone of the two larger works but I thought if the Berlioz overture were compellingly conducted, not much would be lost. Alas the Berlioz Roman Carnival Overture received a performance that was little more than adequate. The opening song like section, with oboe, and the following version of that songful rapture with percussive rhythmic inflections dragged, and the music didn’t flow as it should. The main allegro lacked rhythmic verve and the swagger Beecham used to bring to it. Also the Philharmonia didn’t seem ‘engaged’, the strings lacking sonority and bite, and a frequent untidy ensemble, particularly in the brass. Altogether it was a quite forgettable experience. – not helped by some quite arbitary and botched attempts at overhead image projections behind the orchestra of a Scottish glen at the beginning.

Although Demidenko played the Rachmaninov quite well, performances by Horowitz and Martha Argerich were not erased from my memory. The entry of the piano in the chain-like D minor melody in octaves was a little hesitant and the pianist was a little out of time with conductor. Indeed, in several sections throughout the concerto it seemed as if both conductor and pianist had not established the elements of a dialogue so essential in this concerto. This may have been due in part to the conductor’s tendency to engage in pronounced rallentandos. The piu mosso section lacked rhythmic deftness, as did the scherzo-like contrasting B major section, and the stormy D minor section which punctuates the opening rhythmic figure lost its full effect with the conductor’s decision to speed up where no accelerando is asked for. It seems that if this concerto is really going to work, a pianist like Horowitz or Argerich with a conductor like Reiner (for Horowitz), is required. The ‘intermezzo’ Adagio second movement, a free series of variations, was allowed to drag and sag at times; again it seemed that soloist and conductor had completely divergent agendas. The finale (Alla breve) picked up somewhat in terms of virtuoso brilliance and flashes of cutting drama and excitement from the orchestra. Yet surely this, of all Rachmaninov’s concerto finales, needs more coherence of purpose between soloist and conductor and thematic diversity – especially in the long coda with its toccata-like sequences and thematic references from the first movement?

The same lack of ‘engagement’ from the orchestra continued into and throughout Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathetique’ Symphony. I had had little sense of excitement and anticipation of the great tutti march in the busy but quiet triplet motion at the beginning of the third movement. Although this was not just a case of routine orchestral playing. Vasquez’s conducting often lacked any sense of symphonic coherence and drama. And in the second movement waltz in five-four time one had no sense of the lilt and charm of this music. The trio’s hint of Slavonic despair, with its ostinato pedal rhythm in the lower orchestral register, sounded no more inspired than a routine rehearsal run-through.

Vasquez failed to register the sense of anticipation in the first movement’s magical transitions from ghostly B minor gloom of the opening statements to the arrival of the great melodic theme initially on violins. This is marked ‘ritenuto’, but also ‘moderato mosso’ (with movement). Vasquez’s eyes were fixed here on the ritenuto. Consequently the movement had no sense of movement and merely dragged with a good deal of vibrato for good measure. Isn’t this the way Tchaikovsky’s music used to be ‘distorted’ by the likes of Mengelberg and Stokowski in the bad old days (or good old day’s depending on subjective perception)? Have we not learned from the likes of Toscanini, Markevitch, and more recently Norrington (with no vibrato) that Tchaikovsky is better served as a serious symphonic composer by adhering to his quite specific score markings/instructions?

The crash which opens the development section was ridiculously loud. The composer is quite unambiguous here. He asks for tutti ff sforzato followed by a decrescendo to pp. I really should say that the timpani were so loud here as to smother the other orchestral parts, particularly the woodwind. This was more like fffffff! Again at the great B minor climax of the movement with Wotan-like descending trombones the timpanist was not just too loud – even though his part here is marked ffff – he belted out a frontal assault, more suitable to the shattering timpani entry in the storm prelude to Wagner’s ‘Die Walkure’! The timpani part is actually quite clearly marked here as a powerful crescendo; surely this kind of excess should be checked by the conductor? Throughout this crucial develpment section (the longest and most complex the composer ever wrote) there was no sense of contour, or line. It takes a conductor of great skill to make all the diverse dynamic and tonal registers (from B minor to B flat and E minor) cohere. It takes a great conductor and orchestra to project the intense tragic drama here, replete with an ominously dramatic phrase from the one of the Russian Orthodox Church’s requiem chants. None of this happened tonight. And, as already noted, at the height of the development drama, and the extended coda, there was frequent messy ensemble, especially in the brass – and a real lack of sonorous/dramatic weight in the strings, especially in the bass register.

The third movement’s central tutti G major march sounded curiously static. It was loud rather than thrustingly powerful. The march coda lacked that sense of frantic exhilaration, which, of course, anticipates the sombre drama of the great ‘lamentoso’ finale. This was an insight Tovey observed writing of this transition from march to lamentoso; ‘the real hero of Greek Tragedy is the hero in time, but not in the story… his heart will more likely be in the mood of Tchaikovsky’s finale’. None of this registered tonight (and was not helped by the intrusion of audience applause at the end of the march). Vasquez overlaid the finale with all kinds of unconvincing rubato. The initial ghostly hymn-like theme, marked as a plain melody, sounded too drawn-out, and rather than sustaining the second subject’s build up to the first climax, Vasquez rushed, as he rushed to the final catastrophic B minor climax, thus robbing this unique music of its true sustained dramatic/tragic impact. The ominous and threnodic coda with its throbbing but trenchant p ostinato bass figure sounded peculiarly indistinct and understated tonight.

Overall this was a disappointing experience made more frustrating in the knowledge that the Philharmonia can engage with this music when someone like the late Sir Charles Mackerras is conducting. In retrospect this makes the loss of Mackerras, and others of his musical integrity, all the more poignant and regrettable.

Geoff Diggines