United Kingdom Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov: Kirill Gerstein (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Paul Daniel (conductor), 05.12.2014 (SRT)
Prokofiev: Russian Overture
Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2
Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2
I really enjoy Paul Daniel’s work with the RSNO. He’s clearly a conductor who works on a collegiate basis – you can tell from little, non-musical things, such as the way in which he gives the concluding ovations, and his own refusal to take a solo bow – and the players evidently enjoy playing for him. Not only do they look as though they enjoy his concerts, but they sound that bit more relaxed, more care-free. That was absolutely evident in their Rachmaninov, most obviously the strings, the central plank of the Second Symphony’s sound world. The big moments which required them to let rip, such as the lyrical melody of the second movement or the big sweeps of the Adagio, sounded rich, opulent and luxurious, but they had a searching, incisive quality to them during the musical business of the first movement, and they lent a bit more analytical edge to the finale, too. Daniel’s conducting was confident and assertive throughout, his shaping and pointing of the piece showing that he had thought long and hard about the sound he wanted, with every shimmer and modulation made to count. He couldn’t resist a bit of indulgence in the Adagio, teasing out each phrase lovingly, but who could begrudge him a bit of a wallow, especially when it’s probably what most of the audience wanted anyway?
Putting him with Kirill Gerstein worked brilliantly, too. In his programme note, Gerstein described Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto as the composer at home (he wrote it for his son, after all), and there was something gloriously carefree about Gerstein’s playing of the solo part. I liked the boyish way he seemed to keep checking with the orchestra during the madcap finale, to make sure that they were all doing the same thing, and there was an impish quality to his first movement that was happy to step aside for the big moments that came later. The orchestral string tone for the slow movement created the most comfortable of beds on which Gerstein could pick out the glorious melody, though he decided on a tempo that little bit faster than normal to stop it from becoming purely indulgent.
I wasn’t so enamoured with Prokofiev’s Russian Overture, though. It was written as a patriotic piece to commemorate the composer’s return to Russia in 1936, and it makes liberal use of lots of Russian folk songs, but it does so in a way that struck me as tacky and, frankly, pointlessly derivative. Even the rich strain of string melody that appeared about two thirds of the way through didn’t win me over, and it sounded almost as though Prokofiev was sending up his own material but that nobody was quite getting the joke. “Did you like that?” Daniel asked later. I kept my mouth shut.