Russian Ballets Impress More Than Lindberg’s New Piano Concerto.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prokofiev, Magnus Lindberg, Stravinsky Yefim Bronfman (piano) London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London 21.3.2015 (RB)

Prokofiev: Chout – Excerpts from ballet suite, Op 21bis
Magnus Lindberg: Piano Concerto No. 2 (UK première)
Stravinsky: Petrushka:  burlesque in four scenes (1911 version)


This was one of a series of Southbank Centre concerts focusing on Russian ballet scores, particularly those commissioned at the beginning of the 20th Century by the impresario, Sergei Diaghilev.  Ballet music by Prokofiev and Stravinsky framed Magnus Lindberg’s Second Piano Concerto which was written towards the end of his previous residency with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  The New York Philharmonic gave the première of the work in May 2012 at the Lincoln Centre, New York with Yefim Bronfman playing the solo part and Alan Gilbert conducting. (Click here for a review of a subsequent performance in Los Angeles)

 I was unfamiliar with two of the works being performed at this concert and had a quick look at the programme prior to the concert in the hope of being better informed about the music.  The programme gave us some information about the historical background to the opening and final pieces and outlined the plot of the ballets but provided virtually no information about the music itself.  In between there was an interview with Magnus Lindberg which featured oblique and obscure comments such as:  “How does the soloist’s material reflect the piano’s unusual ability to cover both the vertical and horizontal dimensions?”  If the Southbank Centre wish the general public to be better informed about the programmed works it would be helpful to include some information about the music being performed and to write it in a language that is comprehensible to the layman.

 Chout, or ‘The Buffoon’, was Prokofiev’s second attempt to write a ballet score for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.  The ballet describes how seven buffoons all kill their wives after being told by the buffoon of the title that he has killed his own wife and brought her back to life with a magic whip.  The story is dark with absurdist humour and seems highly suited to Prokofiev’s subversive musical style.  Prokofiev turned the ballet into a twelve-movement concert suite and indicated that conductors could make a selection from the movements so we heard five of the movements at tonight’s concert.  The opening movement entitled, The Buffoon and his Wife had a whimsical opening with fragments of melody in the brass and woodwind and it was followed by chromatic scale passages in the strings depicting the ludicrous domestic scene.  Jurowski and the LPO used a range of sonorities and dynamics to depict the parody and grotesque elements in the score.  The Buffoon as a Young Woman was a slower moving dance and there was some nicely shaped playing on the flutes accompanied by harps in the opening section.  Jurowski and the LPO capitalised on the dark humour and the stabbing dissonances in the score.  There was some febrile playing from brass and woodwind in The Young Woman has Become a Goat and Jurowski did an excellent job creating the chaotic scene being depicted while keeping a tight rein on his players.  In The Burial of the Goat plaintive melodies on woodwind arched against whispering strings and interjections from the percussion.  The LPO’s leader, Pieter Shoeman, was superb in his solos during the Final Dance before the full LPO took over, providing rich vibrant rich colours to drive the suite to its highly dubious but nonetheless affirming conclusion.  It is a great piece and deserves to be heard in the concert hall much more often.

 Yefim Bronfman then took centre stage for Magnus Lindberg’s Second Piano Concerto.  In the programme Lindberg described his concerto as being “closer in spirit to [Ravel’s] left hand concerto”.  Later he stated that:  “Though the concerto runs continuously, there are three clear sections, which evolved naturally during composition.  The first presents everything in expository fashion, the second is a contrasting slow movement with cadenza, and the third is a more direct straightforward finale”.  I am a huge admirer or both Jurowski and Bronfman and, from what I could tell, they appeared to give very committed performances of this work.  The piece itself, however, left me cold and I found it difficult to engage with it.  The material certainly has the dark and ominous atmosphere of Ravel’s Left Hand Concerto but it has none of the inventiveness of that work and it seemed to emerge as a series of dense and unrelenting textures (it seemed like a 21st Century version of Reger at his worst).  The piano part sounds exceptionally difficult and it was impressive to listen to Bronfman negotiating the technical difficulties but I’m afraid this is not a work I could recommend or would want to listen to again.

 The final work on the programme was the 1911 version of Stravinsky’s Petrushka which the composer again wrote for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.  The LPO’s flutes and cellos set the scene for the bustling festivities of the Shrovetide Fair before the full orchestra provided a highly coloured and lustrous sound in the initial orchestral tutti.  Jurowski ensured the music had a seamless narrative flow while at the same time being highly responsive to the composer’s changing rhythmic patterns.  The woodwind did a magnificent job recreating Stravinsky enchanting organ grinder music while the the vibrancy and energy of the Russian Dance material  was also captured.  Catherine Edwards was on top of the intricate piano writing in the scene set in Petrushka’s cell while Jurowski did an excellent job coordinating the fragmented orchestral entries.  I wondered if he and the LPO could have made a little more of some of the extreme dramatic contrasts in the music as the score lends itself to this.  The LPO’s brass came to the fore in the Moor’s music with the trumpets in particular playing extremely well.  The Moor’s dance with the Ballerina was charming and delightful with trumpets and flutes giving us nicely decorated lines.  In the final scene Jurowski created a stirring drama out of the evening’s events at the Shrovetide Fair.  He and the LPO were at their most exuberant with the constantly shifting rhythms and gave us a glittering tapestry of sound and colour.

 Overall, there were great performances at this concert but Lindberg’s Second Piano Concerto is not for me.


Robert Beattie










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