United Kingdom Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. Simon Trpčeski (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Gustavo Gimeno (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 12.11.2014 (JQ)
Tchaikovsky – Fantasy Overture, Romeo and Juliet
Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No 3 in C major, Op. 26
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No 2 in C minor, Op. 17. ‘Little Russian’
This concert saw the Spanish conductor, Gustavo Gimeno, make his debut with the CBSO. Gimeno was principal percussionist of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra from 2001 to 2013. His conducting career took off in 2012 when he became assistant to Mariss Jansons and he’s also worked as assistant to both Abbado and Haitink at various times. Following a series of extremely well-received appearances with a number of leading orchestra, including with the Royal Concertgebouw itself earlier this year, he has now been appointed Principal Conductor of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg, starting in season 2015/16.
He made a favourable impression here right from the moment that he came onto the platform, shook hands with the orchestra’s leader, Laurence Jackson and then kissed the hand of his first desk colleague, Zoë Byers. It was a courtly gesture that seemed quite unaffected and which raised a smile in the orchestra. His beat is expressive yet clear and his left hand conveys meaning too. It seemed to me that all his gestures were relevant and not extravagant and he appeared to have a good rapport with the orchestra, which played very well for him. He clearly relished the opportunities to unleash the power of the orchestra in this acoustic – though never in an excessive or vulgar way – yet there was also much dexterous, refined and neat playing to admire also. And how refreshing it was to see a young conductor pay the orchestra the compliment of dressing, like the gentlemen of the CBSO, in white tie and tails rather than in one of the loose-fitting jackets that seem to be all the rage these days.
The Macedonian pianist, Simon Trpčeski joined the orchestra for Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. In the past I’ve greatly admired his work as a concerto soloist in Rachmaninov (review ~ review) and he appeared equally at home in Prokofiev. David Gutman’s useful programme note quoted a perceptive observation by Hugh Ottaway that this concerto ‘accommodates nearly all the Prokofievs we have ever known’. Composed between 1911 and 1921 it contains passages of steely virtuosity and also fine examples of the composer’s lyrical gifts, especially the sweeping melody, so typical of Prokofiev, that we encounter in the finale. The first movement, after a deceptively gentle start, soon becomes much more vigorous and the music often has a hard edge. Trpčeski despatched the often-formidable piano part with great élan. The second movement, like the second movement of the Second Symphony (1924-25), is a theme and variations. The variations are very wide-ranging in nature and I admired the way both Trpčeski and the orchestra under Gimeno’s direction, brought out the different facets of the music. There was much bravura brilliance in the finale but the aforementioned big melody was given its full value; it was worth waiting for. The ending was exuberant. I enjoyed and admired Trpčeski’s performance in equal measure – as, clearly, did the audience who responded very warmly – and it seemed to me that Gimeno and the CBSO offered him sterling support.
One either side of the concerto we heard music by Tchaikovsky. The celebrated Fantasy Overture began well, the slow introduction well shaped by Gimeno and finely played by the CBSO. There was fire and dash in the allegro sections while the love music that is at the heart of the piece was warmly phrased and flowed very well.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the ‘Little Russian’ Symphony ever since I got to know it many years ago through Claudio Abbado’s winning recording made in the 1960s with the New Philharmonia Orchestra. It may not have the power and intensity of the last three symphonies but it’s a thoroughly engaging score and, in my opinion, the pick of the composer’s first three symphonies. I liked Gimeno’s performance very much. As with Romeo and Juliet, the first movement introduction was nicely shaped and the solo horn and bassoon made excellent contributions. The main Allegro vivo had plenty of energy and purpose; the orchestra played with admirable gusto. The second movement is marked Andantino marziale, quasi moderato. Gimeno’s speed was just a little too perky for my taste. One wants the music to be light and to have a spring in its step but perhaps the speed was just a shade too brisk, meaning that the dotted rhythms sounded a fraction too jaunty. That said, the performance was anything but dull and the CBSO’s playing was pleasingly precise. The scherzo fairly bounded along, the rhythms vital and well spring. The trio was delightful and overall this was a super reading of the movement. The colourful and vivacious finale came off very well indeed. The playing was full of drive and vitality and the symphony was brought to an exciting conclusion, which understandably went down very well with the audience.
This was a most enjoyable concert. I hope we shall see Gustavo Gimeno back in Birmingham again soon.