Rimsky-Korsakov –The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh – Prelude
Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No. 1 in F Sharp Minor Op 1
Dvořák – Symphony No. 8 in G Op 88
The Philharmonia were joined by the distinguished Chief Conductor of the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Yuri Temirkanov, for this concert of late Romantic masterpieces. The up and coming young lion of the keyboard, Daniil Trifonov, was the soloist in Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto.
The concert opened with the rarely performed prelude to Rimsky-Korsakov’s penultimate opera, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. The opera, considered by many to be the composer’s finest, uses supernatural and religious themes and it has been dubbed ‘the Russian Parsifal‘. The short prelude depicts the wild and mysterious forest inhabited by one of the key protagonists in the opera. Temirkanov and the Philharmonia did a terrific job conjuring up the exotic and magical atmosphere of the piece while the whispering forest murmurs and the bird calls were evoked beautifully.
Daniil Trifonov has made quite an impact since winning the Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky International Piano Competitions in 2011. He was playing on his now- trademark Fazioli and bounded on to the stage brimming with confidence. The Philharmonia’s horns threw down the gauntlet in the opening bars and Trifonov responded with barnstorming double octaves. Trifonov has a very natural and instinctive feel for Rachmaninov’s music and he gave us luscious Romantic melodies, clean and well-articulated virtuoso passage-work and rich, shimmering colours. He was completely at one with Temirkanov who seemed able to coax the perfect balance of sound from the Philharmonia both to support and enhance this young pianist. The first movement cadenza was a stunning piece of playing: Trifonov started with a wonderful feeling of improvisatory freedom before electrifying the audience with high-octane pyrotechnics. Temirkanov kept the Philharmonia on a very tight leash for the coda and they remained perfectly in sync with Trifonov’s incendiary playing. The opening of the Andante had a rapt, soulful beauty – Trifonov allowed Rachmaninov’s wonderful opening melody to float on a velvet cushion of sound and he layered the rich textures beautifully. He showed his credentials as a chamber musician, providing nicely textured and unobtrusive accompaniments to the Philharmonia’s principal bassoon, oboe and strings. His shaping of the filigree accompaniment towards the end of the movement was spellbinding. Trifonov dispatched the opening fleet-fingered figurations of the finale with virtuoso aplomb. I particularly enjoyed the unfettered exuberance which he exhibited in the sunny second subject and the dreamy, wistful sense of longing which he brought to the slow section in the middle of the movement. In both instances his playing was perfectly echoed by his orchestral partners. Trifonov gave us one final thrilling adrenaline rush in the coda where Temirkanov expertly coordinated some very tight exchanges between orchestra and soloist. Temirkanov joined in with the audience’s ecstatic applause for his soloist before Trifonov returned to the stage to play a short piece by Medtner as an encore.
The final piece in the programme was Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony, which the composer wrote in 1889 at a time when his work was receiving international acclaim and when his music was gaining widespread popularity in England. The symphony was first performed in Prague in 1890 and then in England in the following year at a ceremony where Dvořák received an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University. Temirkanov is a very composed and assured figure on the podium and he clearly had his players’ undivided attention – from the opening bars of the symphony we knew we were in very safe and capable hands. The opening melody on the cellos was warm and engaging and it succeeded in capturing the attention of the audience right from the outset. The Philharmonia’s principal flautist, Philippa Davies, then followed this up with some enchanting bird song – the beautiful Bohemian countryside which the composer loved so much seemed to come into view. Temirkanov seemed to strike just the right balance between the highly charged and energised elements of the opening movement (bravo to the Philharmonia’s strings and brass for their handling of these sections!) and the natural beauty of Dvořák’s enchanting pastoral tone painting. He adopted a nicely flowing tempo for the Adagio slow movement which seemed spot on to me. There were some warmly caressed phrases in the strings in the opening section and a gorgeous blend of colours and textures. There was some exceptionally fine playing from the Philharmonia’s clarinets and an exquisite solo from the orchestra’s guest leader, Vijay Gupta. Temirkanov brought some Classical discipline to the movement and there was a clear sense of line and structure throughout. He also brought a rhythmic tautness to the scherzo which allowed the distinctive Czech flavour of the music to shine through. I particularly liked the elfin, Mendelssohnian textures in the strings and woodwind. Kubelik famously remarked: “Gentlemen, in Bohemia the trumpets never call to battle – they always call to the dance!” Temirkanov had clearly taken the point on board and after the arresting trumpet fanfares opened the final movement he gave us a graceful and elegant Bohemian dance. The shifts in mood and tempo in the ensuing variations were handled in a deft and seamless way before the symphony reached its triumphant conclusion.
Overall,the playing was of an exceptionally high standard throughout this concert – bravo to all the performers.