United Kingdom Rachmaninoff: Pavel Kolesnikov (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vassily Sinaisky (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 29.10.2014 (CS)
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor Op.30
Symphony No.2 in E minor,
There was a palpable buzz of expectation among the sell-out audience at the Royal Festival Hall as we awaited the arrival of the 24-year-old Russian-born pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, to perform Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vassily Sinaisky, as part of the orchestra’s year-long ‘Rachmaninoff: Inside Out’ festival. Since winning the Honens International Piano Competition in 2012, Kolesnikov has been unanimously and ubiquitously lauded; a live recording of his prize-winning performances was released on the Honens label in March 2013, which won praise in the BBC Music Magazine for its ‘tremendous clarity, unfailing musicality and considerable beauty’, while his solo recital debut at the Wigmore Hall was described by John Allison in the Telegraph as ‘one of the most memorable of such occasions London has witnessed in a while’. That recital was also warmly received by my colleague, Robert Beattie (review).
It was clear from the first that this was going to be no monumental ‘battle’ with an old warhorse. The tempo of the Allegro ma non tanto was surprisingly brisk, but there was a lightness about the timpani rolls and muted string semiquavers as the movement unfolded with naturalness and a sense of inevitability. The quiet poise of Kolesnikov’s opening melody was remarkable; Rachmaninoff declared that the theme ‘simply wrote itself … I wanted to ‘sing’ the melody on the piano, as a singer would sing it’; and, this was what Kolesnikov did, playing with poetic intensity, ‘singing’ from inside the music. A few subtle rubatos added warmth to the limpidity; Sinaisky followed his soloist superbly. The rapt beauty of Kolesnikov’s playing seemed to inspire an eloquent responsiveness from the members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra: taking up the theme in the più mosso section the soli violas played with a rich, concentrated tone and there were some wonderfully whispered double bass pizzicati, supportive but tender as the players gently caressed the strings. In the development section solos from bassoon, horn and oboe were sweet-toned and expressive, continually reminding us of the main theme as Kolesnikov raced through the passage work.
The infamous technical challenges of the concerto proved no problem for Kolesnikov, but what was truly remarkable was the way that he was able to skip through the fistfuls of notes while retaining a quiet dynamic – for once we could clearly hear the running lines and complicated figuration and this gave the well-known music an invigorating freshness. It also enabled the more extrovert, impassioned moments to speak with greater impact. In the recapitulation, Sinaisky pushed the tempo ever faster, as Rachmaninoff instructs, until the piano cadenza explosively interrupted; here too there was a balance of power and calm – the lines were carefully voiced and judicious pedalling once again brought air and light to the Romantic rapture. The entry of the flute, oboe and clarinet solos towards the close of the cadenza sweetly lessened the tension before the piano’s final restatement of the theme and the movement’s delicate conclusion.
Kolesnikov has said that he sees music as being similar to fine perfumes, and certainly the Intermezzo: Adagio was notable for the extreme range of tone colours that the pianist drew forth – like an array of vitalising scents. In this movement too, the complexity of the relationship between the soloist and orchestra was evident, as Sinaisky coaxed lovely ensemble playing from the strings and beautiful solos from the woodwind, especially the horns and bassoons. But, the orchestral efforts to recapitulate fully the main cantabile theme were briskly swept aside by Kolesnikov as he dashed into the Finale: Alla breve with flamboyance, even defiance. There was a mercurial spontaneity about the ‘military’ rhythms of the opening melody, but it was in this movement too that Kolesnikov demonstrated his enormous musical concentration. The conversations between orchestra and soloist in the long development section showed a deep understanding of the work’s architectural rhetoric. With the ebbs and flows of the tempo in the movement’s closing pages, the pianist seemed to be slipping into ever-deeper introspection. But, we were all woken from our reveries by a volatile acceleration into the Più vivo and the breakneck final bars.
This was a joyful performance; a genuinely new and convincing revelation of a familiar work. Kolesnikov’s real affection for the music was deeply apparent, and his diffidence and delight in sharing music with his fellow players and the audience shone in an encore of Chopin’s Mazurka Op.68 No.2, in which the neat, delicate trills charmed.
After the interval, an enlarged London Philharmonic returned to the Hall for an exciting performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, the rich weight of swelled ranks of celli and basses lending an air of religiosity to the mysterious opening ‘motto’ theme which unifies the work. Sinaisky, conducting without a baton, guided his players persuasively through the increasingly dense imitative textures while maintaining the suave melodic flow. Once again there was some lovely solo playing, particularly from the cor anglais, and the strings’ quiet lines possessed a touching, yearning quality.
The following Scherzo had a wild energy and sharp bite as Sinaisky made much of Rachmaninoff’s brilliant orchestration: the four horns and three trumpets resonated richly, the violins’ open strings rang cleanly and the glockenspiel added a piquant dash to the bright timbres, before a characteristically luscious, broad theme interrupted the effervescence. Sinaisky was determined to sustain the tension and element of surprise though, and the string fugue in the Trio was bracingly articulated. The third movement Adagio moved onwards, too, as the conductor did not allow the intertwining, winding string lines to over-luxuriate. But, disappointingly, the long clarinet melody seemed reticent and did not match the strings’ warm glow.
A festive vivacity characterised the start of the final Allegro vivace and the exuberance over-spilled excitedly in the development section, in the complex polyphony of cascading scales. The return of the main theme was triumphant, Sinaisky theatrically gesturing to the audience with a bravura flourish at the close. This was a very satisfying concert in which two staples of the repertoire were confidently revisited and reinterpreted.