A Lyrical Aimard and a Rolls Royce Petrushka from Salonen and Philharmonia

20/08/2015

eif-2015-115

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2015 (14) – Ravel, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Usher Hall, 19.8.2015 (SRT)

Ravel: Mother Goose Suite & Piano Concerto in G
Stravinsky: Petrushka (1947)
Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini

This was meant to be the high-profile EIF debut of Lang Lang in Bartók’s second piano concerto, but the Chinese superstar cancelled due to illness. He hopes to be healthy for his solo recital on Friday (21st). We shall see…

Situations like this are a nightmare for any arts organisation, and it speaks of Edinburgh’s pulling power that they could acquire someone of the stature of Pierre-Laurent Aimard at such short notice, albeit involving a change of programme. Aimard’s pianistic style is about as different from Lang Lang’s as it’s possible to get, so it was always going to be a different evening. But would the quality be any less?

I certainly didn’t think so. In fact, there is a lot about this concert that will live in my memory for a very long time, not least for the phenomenal quality of the orchestral playing. Their delicate attention to detail really struck home in the concerto’s opening movement, much more so than the famous jazz allusions, and Aimard’s predominantly lyrical approach tended to smooth over the stylistic incongruities rather than drawing attention to them. Predictably, he gave a beautifully lyrical slow movement.

That orchestral quality was prefigured in a beautiful Mother Goose, full of telling details but tinged with sadness throughout. Only Laideronnette’s music broke the pattern with its flashy delicacy, and the Philharmonia strings repeatedly covered themselves in glory, restrained in Beauty and the Beast but full-breathed in The Fairy Garden.

The quality was raised even higher in the second half, however, turning that into perhaps the finest hour I’ve spent in a concert hall all year. Petrushka is an orchestral showpiece like few others, and I’ve never heard it sound as good as here. The outer movements at the Shrovetide Fair positively thumped with life, the different cross-rhythms cutting across one another like shards of glass, and the sheer vivacity of the playing was phenomenal, be it the weighty brass or the glorious shine on the Philharmonia strings, seeming to radiate positive energy, and not only in those famous syncopations. Salonen seemed to take on the persona of a magician on the podium, throwing himself into creating this masterpiece before our ears, as if the opportunity might never come his way again, and the results were electrifying, not just in the climaxes but also in the awkwardly tender passage where Petrushka dances with the ballerina, or the horribly ironic ending. It was Salonen, too, who really made Francesca da Rimini special, pulling the tempi around so as to heighten the dramatic impact; such as slowing down for the great outpouring of the love theme on massed strings, or speeding up at the height of the storm. Here, even more than in Petrushka, it was his narrative skills that really impressed – phenomenally so, in fact – and his orchestra matching him with playing of stunning virtuosity; beautiful, filigree winds in the love music, hell-raising brass in the storm scenes. The coda alone was worth the price of a ticket, hair-raising in its intensity.

The pairing of this orchestra and conductor is a Rolls Royce partnership and a privilege to hear. Who needs a superstar Chinese pianist?

The concert was recorded for BBC Radio 3 and will be broadcast on Wednesday 16th September.

Simon Thompson

The 2015 Edinburgh International Festival runs until Monday 31st August at venues across the city. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk

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