A Great Start to the South Bank’s Rachmaninoff Inside Out Series

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rachmaninoff Inside Out Alexander Ghindin (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra,Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 3.10. 2014 (CC)

Rachmaninoff  – The Isle of the Dead
Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor (original version)
Symphonic Dances

The first concert of the season-long Rachmaninoff Inside Out series at the South Bank began in impressive fashion. This is a most promising festival: the prospects of The Miserly Knight (semi-staged on Wednesday January 21) and The Bells (Wednesday February 11) are particularly mouth-watering, possibly because one encounters them less frequently in the concert hall. “Rachmaninoff” (as opposed to the more familiar “Rachmaninov”) seems to be the spelling of the moment, so we’ll go with it here.

Jurowski and the LPO are no strangers to the purely orchestral works in this concert, having recorded them in the early stages of their own label: both The Isle of the Dead and the Symphonic Dances are on LPO004 (review). Certainly now the energy and charge between orchestra and conductor are well established, all of which led to a highly memorable Isle of the Dead. The opening boasted huge reserves of restrained power. Jurowski paced the piece to perfection, ensuring that detail made its mark throughout (antiphonally-placed violins helped). This was a trademark of the evening’s performances: Rachmaninoff emerged as a master of the orchestra with no apologies needed. The glowingly dark brass chorale seemed the summation of Jurowski”s glowering vision of the Böcklin-inspired masterpiece. Jurowski was in total control throughout, his movements restrained but always to the point, nothing superfluous and always for the musicians, never for the audience.

The opportunity to hear the original version of Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Concerto was not to be missed. Alexander Ghindin has recorded this 1891 original (it was first performed by the composer in March 1892); the 1917 revision is far and away the version of this piece one most often encounters. Ghindin made the best possible case for the earlier version. While the 1917 revision is significantly more concentrated – the development and the cadenza of the first movement and the second part of the central Andante cantabile both differ substantially – it was clear Ghindin was there to fight the case for the defence. His stance was grittily determined rather than purely virtuoso in the first movement – an impression aided by the steely tone of his fortes on his Steinway – yet the cadenza tended towards the ruminative.

Applause after the first movement was unexpected at an LPO main season concert – even more surprising was the fact that Ghindin acknowledged it. He did verge on over-projecting the melodic line at times in the central movement, but the lasting impression was that he found the interior heart without, mercifully, over-sentimentalising. The wind/brass balance in the central movement was miraculous, as was the sheen on the strings as they played the long melody against quiet chords on the piano. Ghindin was idiomatic in the skittish finale, a miracle of pianistic control. This was a magnificent, all-encompassing performance of the concerto that found pianist and conductor on the same wavelength throughout. There was a glittering encore: the Moment musical in E flat minor, Op. 16/2.

Only this Summer, the Berliners under Rattle had given us the Symphonic Dances at the Proms. It was a fine account, but one that occasionally tended towards the Germanic. Jurowski’s was a taut performance, ultimately more musically satisfying than Rattle’s. There was good momentum to the first dance, yet it carried with it a sense of the laden; the saxophone solo was lovely but without any trace of the self-indulgent. Perhaps honours were equally divided between London and Berlin for the shadowy dance of the central panel; it was Jurowski’s conducting of the finale that won out though. He has a way of fully honouring the gestural without denying the work’s underlying organic structure that is surely the aim of every conductor. The resonance of the tam-tam strike at the end was scuppered by audience intervention, but that couldn’t eradicate the effect of the performance as a whole. A great start to what promises to be a most stimulating series.

Colin Clarke