Krzysztof Urbański Impresses with the Philharmonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Smetana, Chopin, Dvořák. Jan Lisiecki (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Krzysztof Urbański (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London 23.10.2014 (RB)

Smetana – ‘Vltava’ from Má Vlast
Chopin – Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op 11
Dvořák – Symphony No. 9 in E Minor Op 95 ‘From the New World’

This concert of popular Romantic masterpieces opened with ‘Vltava’, the most popular of the tone poems from Smetana’s Má Vlast. Krzysztof Urbański clearly knew from the outset what he wanted to say about the piece and how he wanted the orchestra to say it. The opening phrases in the woodwind really did sound like the swirling of river currents and the famous opening melody in the strings was played with a nicely understated sweetness of tone. The transitions were managed beautifully by Urbański and he succeeded in bringing out the distinctive picturesque charm of the Bohemian countryside. The Philharmonia brought out much of the detail in the score in a very natural and musical way and the build up to the climaxes in each of the sections was very well handled. The final section had a rich grandeur and majesty and the end of the piece, where we lose sight of the river, was magical. This was a great opening to the concert.

Jan Lisiecki joined the assembled forces for Chopin’s E minor concerto. I was struck by the youthful and stylish appearance of both the conductor and the soloist – neither of them would seem out of place in an X Factor Boy Band. It is good to see these young people rising to such prominence in the world of Classical music. Having said that, I had rather mixed feelings about this performance. The opening movement is marked Allegro maestoso but Urbański and Lisiecki both clearly wanted to highlight the maestoso elements, and Chopin’s gifts as a lyricist, at the expense of the marked tempo. The opening tutti was too slow and consequently lacked fire while some of the lyrical sections were a little over-cooked. Lisiecki is clearly a very technically accomplished player but I found some of the playing on this occasion a little self- indulgent, particularly the more lyrical sections in the major key. He necessarily had to speed up when he came to the bravura passage work so the movement as a whole came across as disjointed and lacking cohesion. The slow movement was better and I particularly liked the gorgeous, expressively lyrical tone which Lisiecki coaxed from his Steinway and the exquisitely shaped filigree decoration. The central section had the necessary degree of fire and dramatic passion and Lisiecki showed his credentials as fine chamber musician in the penultimate section. I also liked the way conductor and soloist handled the Polish dance material in the final movement. I wondered if Lisiecki could have delineated some of the passage work a little more crisply and clearly on occasion. Having said that, he was generally on top of the pyrotechnics and the coda was played with an unfettered exuberance. He gave us Chopin’s ‘Raindrop’ prelude as an encore.

Dvořák explained that the title of his final symphony meant, ‘Impressions and greetings from the New World’. The title perhaps underlines that while this perennially popular work contains material that was influenced by African American spirituals and the music of the native American Indians, it also contains many allusions to and a nostalgia for the composer’s native Bohemia. Urbański again showed an excellent grasp of the detail in this piece. The slow introduction was striking and dramatic and the transition to the faster material well handled. The Philharmonia played with enormous energy and warmth and Urbański created an excellent balance of sound while the coordination of the orchestral entries was spot on. The movement unfolded as a seamless and cohesive dramatic narrative which allowed the composer’s own unique musical voice to shine through without any trace of artifice. The famous cor anglais solo which opens the Largo slow movement was elegant and expressive without being overly sentimental. I found the playing a shade too fast and I wondered if there might be scope to allow this music a little more space to breathe and for the wonderful opening melody to work its magic. Having said that I loved the evocation of the Bohemian forest murmurs in the central section. The dancing of the native American Indians was convincing portrayed in the scherzo while the trio unfolded with a graceful elegance, with Urbański bringing out the lilt and sway of the Bohemian dance elements. The Philharmonia’s brass played the opening melody of the finale in a robust and vibrant way while the strings gave us some bravura passage work and an enormous adrenaline rush of energy. There were some heady atmospherics from the woodwind and strings and a wonderful build up in sonority before the final climax.

This was very impressive conducting by Urbański – he is clearly a name to watch out for in future – and great playing from the Philharmonia.

Robert Beattie

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