Paavo Järvi Impresses in Russian Fare with the Philharmonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Glinka, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich: Kirill Gerstein (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Paavo Järvi (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 12.6.2014 (CS)

Glinka: Overture, Ruslan and Ludmilla
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor Op.30
Shostakovich: Symphony No.5 in D minor Op.47


Three Russian masterpieces; three very different temperaments.  The composure and controlling vision of conductor Paavo Järvi was the thread that bound this programme by the Philharmonia Orchestra together. 

Glinka’s opera, Ruslan and Ludmilla – which tells of the Princess Ludmilla’s rescue by her beloved Ruslan from the evil clutches of the dwarf Chernomor – had little success at its premiere in 1842, and is still rarely performed, but the overture is a familiar orchestral show-piece.  Even so Järvi’s break-neck tempo seemed designed to push the Philharmonia to their limits.  Yet the players seemed to have little trouble negotiating the virtuosities demanded, and the rhythmic energy of the unison strings’ racing opening established the vigour and dynamism; the full orchestral melody had brilliance, with surging crescendos from the celebratory brass.  In contrast, the cellos’ rich melody was sweet and subtly shaded, reflecting the tenderness of Ruslan’s devotion to Ludmilla.

In Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.3, the Philharmonia was more subdued, however, not quite finding the rich Romanticism required to convey the score’s resounding bravura and its deep soulfulness.  Perhaps Kirill Gerstein’s determinedly expeditious tempo had something to do with it. The immense technical challenges with which the Third Concerto confronts the soloist obviously offered little obstacle to Gerstein who swept through the endurance-testing concerto with astonishing proficiency and ease.  But, at times, Gerstein‘s visual engagement with the orchestra did not seem to be matched by musical collaboration, soloist and orchestra performing together but not always responsively.

The opening of the first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, was appropriately unassuming, contrasting as it does with the more rhetorical beginnings of the composer’s other three piano concerti.  The soloist’s melody, which Rachmaninov reputedly said had ‘written itself’, sang clearly, unfolding lyrically against the quiet pulse of the clarinet, bassoon, horn, timpani, and muted strings; but the interjections of the violins and woodwind, while stylishly phrased, did not truly integrate with the piano’s evolving line.  This ‘duality’ characterised the movement: Järvi created a spaciousness which allowed the woodwind to shine touchingly through, but their voices remained somewhat distant from Gerstein’s urgent progress.  The recapitulation lacked the weightiness that creates a feeling of inevitability, as if it is emerging from some deep fundamental source. Gerstein  raced through the cadenza with astonishing virtuosity and a sense of barely restrained violence, but I felt that some of the passagework was so fast that the sound became somewhat smudged, and I would have liked more grandeur and breadth.

In the Intermezzo: Adagio, however, the strings found a more luxurious sound and the piano’s disruptive interruptions were more true to the spirit of the music.  Järvi was alert to the details as the movement roved through contrasting territories, and there was again some fine playing from the woodwind, especially the first flute (Katherine Bryan) and first horn (Nigel Black); the latter’s controlled, quiet legato was impressive.  Similarly, the well-shaped phrasing of clarinet and bassoon enhanced the light airiness of the waltz-like episode.  Gerstein danced through the dizzying intricacies of the fiendish variations, racing into the concluding Finale: Alla breve and unleashing a torrent of brilliance.   Subsequently, there was delicacy in the rippling piano motifs and outpourings of impassioned melody, as the movement accelerated to an exciting conclusion.

Gerstein confirmed his prodigious technical ability in Felix Blumenfeld’s Etude for the Left Hand, an encore which suggested that he can play more notes with one hand, and with great beauty, than most could manage with two.  This was magnificent alone, but I’d have liked more blend and interchange in the preceding concerto.

Järvi crafted the final work, Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5 in D minor, with discernment and fine judgement of tempi and timbre.  The tense deliberation of the opening jagged rhythm gradually relaxed into the cellos’ rocking motif.  The violin melody was movingly contemplative and as the pace quickened the music expanded warmly into a calm statement of the widely spaced second theme.   Järvi created fluidity as the pace quickened again into the development, giving the clarinet melody (Mark van der Wiel) room to breathe, and then injecting dynamism in the grotesque march-like passage, horns rasping, bass pizzicati pounding, piano thundering.  The accelerando into the conclusion was fearless, culminating in a piercing unison theme.  After the maelstrom, the quiet coda was searching and introspective.

After the pained ruminations of the Moderato, the Allegretto was a welcome, genial respite.  The robustness of the cellos and basses was juxtaposed with the classical clarity of the woodwind – again, there was much superb playing from the latter, and some particularly agile bassoon lines (Amy Harman).  Interjections from the piccolo and pizzicato strings offered a dash of irony; leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay’s solo – mimicked by the flute – was insouciant and witty.  Järvi dared to take the pianissimo of the Largo third movement almost to the point of vanishing; as the inside players of the violin desks sustained a translucent thread, the woodwind sang meditatively.  The two episodes for flute and harp, in which Järvi thoughtfully balanced intensity with release, secured the overall structure of the movement.

The concluding Allegro non troppo announced its angry arrival in a pounding onslaught from the brass, suggesting a march to the abyss, and the strings’ extension of this melody created a growing excitement, the momentum of which blossomed into the trumpet’s (Jason Evans) soaring theme.  There were moments of stillness though: the horn’s lyrical melody was calm, and the quiet augmentation of the march melody was contemplative.  But the return of the movement’s first theme triggered an unstoppable drive towards the blazing major key climax, the satisfying conclusion characteristic of the balance between conflict and celebration which Järvi sustained throughout.

Claire Seymour

Leave a Comment