Fabien Gabel and the RPO on Good Form

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius: Natasha Paremski (piano,) Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Fabien Gabel (conductor) Cadogan Hall, London 14.10.2014 (RB)

Schumann – Manfred Overture Op 115
Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat Minor Op 23
Sibelius – Symphony No. 5 in E Flat Major Op 82

Lord Byron wrote his dramatic poem Manfred in 1817 immediately after his stay with the Shelleys at the villa on the shores of Lake Geneva. (Mary Shelley also wrote Frankenstein immediately after this). The poem clearly struck a chord with Schumann who wrote the overture and incidental music to Manfred in 1849. Gabel and the RPO opened this concert with the overture to the work and they gave a stylish and accomplished performance. The imposing opening chords were perfectly weighted and I liked the way Gabel sustained the angst and tension of the opening section with its probing chromatic harmonies. Gabel successfully brought out the restless, neurotic quality which permeates much of Schumann’s late music in the faster sections and I liked much of the shaping of the passage work, particularly in the strings. Some of the quieter, more reflective passages seemed to drift a little and I wondered if Gabel and the RPO could have injected a little more tension and momentum into these sections. Having said that the final slowdown in the coda was very well managed, rounding off this strong opening to the concert.

Natasha Paremski joined the orchestra for one of the great war horses of the repertoire: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in B Flat Minor. The RPO played the famous opening with striking authority before Paremski joined the fray with powerfully weighted chords. Paremski clearly has a big technique and was able to dispatch much of the first movement’s passage work, including the famous double octave fusillades, with enormous power and authority. However, it is important that the lyrical material in this concerto does not sound stale or hackneyed and it was here that I found Paremski’s performance less convincing. She tried to invest the music with feeling but the playing sounded curiously insincere and mannered. There was also some curious breaking of the line on a number of occasions where the pedal came off a little too soon. Paremski did better in the second movement where she conjured a glowing burnished tone from her Steinway. The flute, cello and oboe solos were all performed beautifully by the RPO principals and the orchestra provided a flexible and responsive accompaniment throughout. Paremski’s technique let her down a little in the prestissimo middle section: the opening bars were slightly messy – the RPO did well to stay in sync with her – and it did not always have the necessary lightness of touch required. The Allegro con fuoco finale was the best of the three movements and it was here where Paremski seemed most comfortable,. The technical challenges were all dispatched with aplomb and she took the coda at a blistering pace creating a real feeling of exhilaration.

Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony was written during the First World War but it remains a stubbornly optimistic work, permeated with a sense of the spiritual beauty that comes from nature. The composer was inspired after seeing a group of swans circling in the air and vanishing into the haze and he cites this event as an important influence on the music. The horns did an excellent job capturing the mood of the piece in the opening bars of the first movement and they were nicely counterpointed by the woodwind. Gable succeeded in creating a rich blend of orchestral textures and colours as the music progressed, perfectly evoking many of the natural phenomena which must have inspired the composer, while the sunrise modulation which leads into the scherzo section was absolutely gorgeous. The RPO created some light and diaphanous textures in the scherzo section and Gabel did well in bringing out the lilt and sway of the music. The woodwind entries at the beginning of the slow movement were well handled and I liked the way in which the movement gradually came together as a collage of perfectly blended tone colours. The variations emerged organically and naturally and the balance of sound and the tempo relationships were all handled well. The finale started with a flurry of activity in the strings before we heard the famous brass entries which were delivered with a resplendent nobility. The strings played the spectral figurations in the middle section with just the right blend of lightness and vitality. The movement closed in a stately fashion with the rich brass entries reverberating beautifully around the hall. A great conclusion to the concert.

Robert Beattie

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