United Kingdom Tchaikovsky and Dvořák: Denis Kozhukhin (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Yuri Temirkanov (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 31.5.2014 (MB)
Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto no.1 in B-flat minor, op.23
Dvořák – Symphony no.9 in E minor, op.95
I keep trying with Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, and a Richter performance can just about momentarily dispel my doubts, but less than that simply confirms me in my belief that Nikolai Rubinstein’s initial dismissal of the work was not so far off the mark. It is certainly difficult to imagine on what conceivable musical grounds it is performed so frequently, the greatest problem being that apparently tacked-on introduction. Yes, it can be argued from looking at the score that there is a connection with subsequent material, but does it ever sound like it? Perhaps it does, and I have yet to hear the right performance; at any rate, this was not it.
Yuri Temirkanov’s conducting of the Philharmonia was impressive; he can probably conduct this concerto in his sleep, but it certainly did not sound as if he were. The introduction was somewhat on the swift side, no great loss. Thereafter, the first movement was characterful and agile – at least from the orchestra, which, when having the spotlight to itself, might have been performing one of the symphonies. Denis Kozhukhin, alas, rarely showed any sign of listening to the other players; it was as if it were his show and his show alone, the orchestra treated as if it were a mere ‘accompaniment’, certainly no way to salvage so problematical a work. It was a pity, since Kozhukhin was perfectly capable of exhibiting dark, weighty tone, at times melting away into nothingness. The slow movement was, on the surface, well played, but it was difficult to detect anything much beneath the surface, at least when it came to the pianist. The orchestra, alive with dance tunes and rhythms was another matter. A typically alert orchestral opening promised well for the finale, dispelling a predictable bronchial outburst. There was a sense of urgency throughout, though at times, Temirkanov perhaps drove a little too hard. Indeed, at times, the performance felt on the verge of falling apart. Meanwhile, Kozhukhin apparently remained in a world of his own, his playing increasingly brutalising. Thank goodness it was not Mozart.
The second half offered an estimable account of Dvořak’s ‘New World’ Symphony. The opening intrigued, sounding more as if were plunged into action that had been going for some time than I can recall. The first movement’s exposition proper clearly derived from material we had heard: not only analytically, but dramatically (as if there were such an opposition!) Temirkanov drove the performance urgently, but not too much, and relaxed significantly for the second group, which benefited from lilting rubato. Here, as in Tchaikovsky, the Philharmonia’s strings sounded splendidly full of tone. The concision of the movement registered very well indeed. Its successor benefited from an unsentimental approach. Jill Crowther’s beautifully-played English horn solo was first among equals in an excellent woodwind section. This was a songful account, with due understanding of harmonic development. The third movement bore definite kinship to the contrasting sections in the slow movement; rhythmic detail was very well pointed. In that respect, one might even have called it ‘balletic’, so long as that were not understood to detract from its symphonism. If the work bears its ‘cyclic’ features too obviously on its sleeve, then that is not the performers’ fault; at least they were duly suggestive here. The same might be said of the finale, given an impassioned, perhaps more overtly Romantic performance: full of dramatic tension, without a hint of the routine.