Tchaikovsky is the Star in The London Phil’s Latest Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky: Behzod Abduraimov (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, David Zinman (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 28.11.2014 (CS)

Richard Wagner: Overture, Tannhäuser
Sergey Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.4 in F Minor Op.36

The London Philharmonic Orchestra continues its exploration of the works of Rachmaninoff, but on this occasion at the Royal Festival Hall it was in fact the music of the composer’s Russian compatriot, Tchaikovsky, which made the most impact in a searing performance of the Fourth Symphony under the baton of David Zinman.

1877 was a fateful year for Tchaikovsky.  In a bid to resolve the emotional distress resulting from his disastrous, short-lived marriage to Antonina Milyukova and to recover from his subsequent nervous breakdown, the composer retreated to Switzerland, and it was there that the Fourth Symphony was revised and completed.  The symphony is thus an articulation of Tchaikovsky’s attempt to work through his crisis and re-establish his psychological equilibrium.  Zinman and the LPO captured this struggle wonderfully, oscillating between turmoil and repose, defiance and despair, hope and melancholy resignation.

The arresting ‘motto’ fanfare for horns and bassoons which opens the symphony certainly did suggest – to paraphrase Tchaikovsky’s own ‘programme’ notes – ‘fate, that ineluctable power of destiny which like a Damocles sword constantly hangs over our heads and steadily poisons our soul’.  The motto repeatedly interrupts the diverse and numerous melodic excursions and Zinman gave the brass a free rein; at times they were overly dominant, although the conductor did successfully temper the romantic excesses, as the climaxes came thick and fast.  Zinman has a brisk, understated and unfussy approach, but his economical gestures drew passion, turbulence and dreaminess alike.  The string playing was warm and animated during main waltz-like theme which was seductively introduced by the clarinet.  And, throughout the movement, with its endless fluctuations, there was a good balance between the classical and romantic forces whose struggle lies at the heart of the symphony.  The swaying syncopations of the long lilting compound-time measures built relentlessly, pulsing forward to thrilling string tremolos in the coda.

John Anderson’s exquisitely wistful oboe solo opened the Andantino, accompanied by doleful pizzicato strings, and was answered with graceful lyricism by the cellos.  The second theme was introduced with poise by the clarinets and bassoons but increasingly acquired a dance-like elegance and rose to rapturous fulfilment in the strings, before the final, quiet nostalgic fragments from solo clarinet and bassoon (Robert Hill and Gareth Newman respectively).

Despondency turned to bitterness tinged with drollness and exuberance in equal measure in the Scherzo, the strings’ pizzicatos a perpetual spiky presence.  Zinman’s tempo was sufficiently relaxed to allow the music to retain its sparkle; we were reminded of Tchaikovsky’s prowess as a composer of ballet scores which are truly symphonic.  There was some delightfully colourful woodwind, and piercing piccolo intrusions which suggested rustic vigour, while the staccato brass had military bite.

In a surging final movement, Zinman pushed the tempo forward as the Fate motto repeatedly returned to issue strident hammer-blows which punctured any burgeoning optimism; the timpani, bass drum and cymbals formed a formidable threatening force.  There was winning story-telling and drama in this Allegro con fuoco before the movement blazed to a conclusion which was both deeply Russian and also Beethovian in its exuberance.

Before such stirring symphonic fire, we had heard a rendering of Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini by the young Uzbekistani pianist, Behzod Abduraimov, characterised by cool composure and clarity.  There is clearly something in the water in Tashkent, for the Uzbekistan capital seems to spawn a surfeit of pianistic virtuosity.  Having enjoyed Michail Lifits’ performance, in impressive partnership with violinist Vilde Frang, at the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday, I was pleased now to have the opportunity to hear twenty-four-year-old Abduraimov, grand prize winner of the 2009 London International Piano Concerto, who has been described as one of the rising stars of his generation.

‘He has the neuro-motor responses of a jungle cat and the energy reserves of an Olympic athlete on peak form,’ wrote the International Record Review, following the release of his 2012 Decca recording of Prokofiev, Liszt and Saint-Saëns, and such qualities would surely serve Abduraimov well in Rachmaninoff’s bewitching variations.  And, this was indeed a performance of edgy energy and also one of considerable self-assurance.  The form of the work – 24 variations bound into a ‘symphonic’ whole – is tight and taut, and Abduraimov introduced the theme as if he was held by a tense thread of elastic that could snap at any moment, the motifs incisively chiselled and alert.  In the fast and furious passagework he confirmed his fearlessness and technical brilliance; he was able to vary the dynamics with astonishing precision and discernment – particularly in the left hand – and his attention to the small decorative details was superb.  The cadenza-like variation eleven was dazzling and there were flashing runs in the crescendo to the conclusion.

But, despite the formal rigour of the work, the variations should retain a rhapsodic quality, at times energised and brisk, elsewhere more ecstatic and free; and it was in the latter, more carefree episodes that Abduraimov lacked a sufficient range of colour.  Similarly, greater sweetness and fullness of tone would have brought a reflective individuality to his performance.  The diabolic episodes sent a shiver down spine but the contemplative sixth variation and the luxuriant eighteenth did not have sufficient soulfulness.

The LPO did not seem entirely settled; there was some messy ensemble in the strings which was at odds with the angular precision of Abduraimov’s steely lines.  But, the orchestral players did find kaleidoscopic variety, from the funereal heaviness of some of the early episodes to the ferocious march of variation thirteen; and there were touching solos from the oboe, horn (David Pyatt) and leader Pieter Schoeman.

Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser had begun the proceedings.  Zinman led a characterful account, anticipating the rich story-telling vein of the evening’s symphony.  Again the brass were high-spirited and Tannhäuser’s hymn was fittingly triumphal, but elsewhere there was considerable beauty of tone from the woodwind.  Shimmering string tremolos conjured Venus’s haunting world, while the pilgrims’ chorus formed a rousing conclusion.

This was an interesting and often impressive performance by the LPO.  I left with the spirit of the final bars of Tchaikovsky’s symphony in my heart, as described in the words of the composer: ‘There are great and simple joys, gain serenity from the joys of others.  Life is tolerable after all!’

Claire Seymour

We have used the spelling of Rachmaninov preferred by the LPO in this review.

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