RPO Performs Brahms, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Brahms, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky: Roustem Saitkoulov (piano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Grzegorz Nowak (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London 13.03.2012 (RB)

Brahms: Academic Festival Overture
: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor
: Symphony No. 1 in G minor ‘Winter Daydreams’

Brahms wrote his Academic Festival Overture in response to the award of an honorary doctorate from Breslau University.  It quotes a number of popular student songs and is a light hearted work, full of appealing melodies and quintessential Brahmsian harmonies and textures.  The RPO opened well with some light and deft exchanges capturing perfectly the tongue in cheek seriousness of the piece.  Nowak did a good job in bringing out the richness of the romantic textures while at the same time ensuring they remained clear.  The brass, strings and bassoons did an excellent job characterising the various student songs (the bassoons were particularly good in the comical ‘Fox-song’).  The final ‘Gaudeamus igitur’ was played with vigour and gusto bringing the piece to its triumphant conclusion.

Nowak and the RPO were joined by Roustem Saitkoulov for Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto.  This is a war horse of the standard repertoire and it requires the pianist to have a big technique (and big hands!) and a lot of stamina.  Saitkoulov is a highly accomplished pianist who has won a number of international piano competitions and the first thing to say is that he was completely on top of the enormous technical demands.  Nowak and the RPO did an excellent job in providing a responsive accompaniment while Saitkoulov kept the textures clean.  The clarity of Saitkoulov’s playing was commendable in the allegro con spirito and the passagework was handled brilliantly but on occasion I would have liked him to deploy a richer and warmer tone to some of Rachmaninov’s big romantic melodies, and to sing out more over the dense pianistic textures.  Saitkoulov decided to play the more difficult of Rachmaninov’s two cadenzas and rose to the occasion by delivering a pianistic tour de force.

In the adagio, Saitkoulov captured the grand romantic sweep of the music and the brooding introspection while the rapid fire repeated notes and figurations in the waltz episode were light and brilliant.  I would have preferred the textures to be a little lighter in one or two places and I thought Saitkoulov could have made more of the lyrical and tender elements in the music (although there are admittedly a lot of notes to negotiate).  Saitkoulov took the finale at a galloping pace and the pianistic fireworks were dispatched with energy and flair.  The scherzando elements had the requisite lightness and delicacy and Saitkoulov’s digital dexterity was superb.  Pianist and orchestra came apart in one of the entries but quickly got back together again.  Some of the more lyrical episodes could have perhaps been a little more expressive (Saitkoulov was rightly concerned to keep the momentum going but could have taken more time in one or two places).  The coda was a barnstorming piece of playing with Saitkoulov whipping things up and driving the piece forward to an electrifying conclusion.  I was pleased to see some members of the audience giving the young pianist a standing ovation.

Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony is his first major large scale orchestral work.  The composer obviously had a great affection for the piece as he said “it has more substance and is better than many of my other mature works”.  Tchaikovsky was influenced by the symphonic language of Mendelssohn and Schumann although his own distinct orchestral voice also clearly emerges in the work.  The symphony is better known by its descriptive title ‘Winter Daydreams’.

The opening sonata form movement is marked allegro tranquillo and has the title ‘Daydreams of a Winter Journey’.  The opening melody on flutes and bassoons with whispering strings was wonderfully atmospheric.  The RPO brought a wide range of colour to the movement and succeeded in bringing out the sense of wonderment and emotional engagement to landscape and natural forms.  I particularly liked some of the pointed phrasing from the violas and cellos and some expressive changes between the strings and woodwind.  The second movement, marked adagio cantabile ma non tanto, is entitled ‘Land of Gloom, Land of Mists’.  The muted opening in the strings had a restrained sensuality and there was some delightful playing from the woodwind.  Some of the long phrases in the strings were nicely shaped and crafted.  The elfin scherzo is reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Nowak and the RPO performed it with lightness and grace, while there was some deft orchestral colouring the waltz trio section.  There appeared to be some tuning problems in the brass at one point but these were quickly resolved.  Nowak brought immense clarity to the contrapuntal elements of the finale and the fugato elements were extremely well articulated and voiced.  The rousing coda was delivered with an emotional charge and punch.  Nowak was right to ask the woodwind section to stand first to acknowledge the applause as this was their night.

Robert Beattie