Rising Stars Rana and Mälkki Perform a Superb Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Liadov, Prokofiev, Sibelius:  London Philharmonic Orchestra, Beatrice Rana (piano), Susanna Mälkki (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 27.11.15. (RB)

Liadov:  From the Apocalypse
Prokofiev:  Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor Op 16
Sibelius:  Symphony No. 1 in E Minor Op 39


This was an interesting programme of dark hued Russian and Finnish masterpieces from the last decade of the 19th and first two decades of the 20th Century.   Rising star Finnish conductor, Susanna Mälkki, and the LPO were joined by the brilliant young Italian pianist, Beatrice Rana, for Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto.

The concert opened with the short tone poem From the Apocalypse by Liadov which is a response to the vivid and extraordinary imagery in the Biblical Book of Revelation.  Like much of Liadov’s music, this is a very fine composition although one wishes there were rather more of it.  Mälkki commanded attention from the outset as we heard rushing scales on woodwind and portentous chords on the brass signalling the dramatic visitation of John the Divine’s mighty angel.  Mälkki did an excellent job conjuring up the sense of breadth and vastness in the music.  The shifts of texture and colour were controlled beautifully while Mälkki kept a tight grip on the pulse and shifting contours of the piece.  There was excellent control of dynamics towards the end as we heard the music build and then fade away again to a whisper.

Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto is one of the most technically demanding works in the repertoire.  Like his Fourth Piano Sonata, the concerto is dedicated to Max Shmidthof, a very close friend of the composer at the St Petersburg Conservatoire.  There has been some speculation as to the nature of Schmidthof’s relationship to Prokofiev (the composer’s first wife wondered if they were more than just friends) but, whatever the circumstances, we know that the depressive Schmidthof left a farewell note for the composer before committing suicide.  The concerto is a dark, brooding, scabrous work which contains some of the composer’s most imaginative and original writing and it deserves to be much better known by the general public.

Beatrice Rana is a very slim, elegant figure on stage but she clearly has a big technique and was fully on top of the enormous technical demands of the concerto.   This was very much a Romantic interpetation of the work.  Rana brought a wistful, luminous quality to the opening octaves while Mälkki and the LPO’s strings brought out the lush sweeping Romanticism of the music.  Rana vied well with her orchestral partners accompanying the short wood woodwind solos well and there was nice interplay in the spiky, trenchant second subject.  The big first movement cadenza was a virtuoso tour de force with Rana navigating the torrents of notes and climactic chords with extraordinary ease and fluency.  The material was structured and organised extremely well although I wondered if there was scope for Rana to bring out more of the violence and brutality of the music.  The scherzo was taken at a blistering pace with Rana giving us some breathtaking fingerwork while remaining completely in sync with the LPO.  In the sardonic intermezzo Rana and the LPO brought us face to face with Prokofiev the poker faced subversive.  There was something very sinister and toxic about the descending scales on clarinet and bassoon.  Rana’s playing of the leggiero scales and glissandi was particularly impressive although I would have liked to hear a little more of the parody and grotesque elements in the score (the playing was almost a little too slick).  We went without a break into the finale and here Rana gave us some adrenaline fuelled playing in the leaping first subject.  She played the gorgeous second subject with enormous feeling and allowed the music to blossom in a highly expressive and lyrical way in close collaboration with her orchestral partners.  The coda was a high octane virtuoso tour de force with soloist and orchestra firing on all cylinders.  The audience responded with enthusiastic applause and coaxed Rana back to the platform for an encore – she gave us a sparkling account of the Gigue from Bach’s Partita in B Flat.

The final work on the programme was Sibelius’ First Symphony which was written towards the end of the 19th Century when Finland was attempting to break free from Russian domination.  Sibelius was supportive of Finland’s attempts to gain independence but he was nevertheless strongly influenced by Russian music particularly Tchaikovsky.  The melodies, harmonies and colours of the First Symphony are all redolent of Tchaikovsky’s later symphonic works although the composer’s own unique fingerprints are also there.

Robert Hill gave an assured performance of the opening Clarinet solo capturing the soulful quality of the music and creating a sense of stillness and reflection around the hall.  Mälkki was in her element in this work creating a cogent musical narrative in the powerful first movement while coaxing the LPO to searing climaxes.  She made the most of the composer’s shifting textures and sonorities and I particularly enjoyed the teasing interplay between woodwind and harp in the playful second subject and some of the rich Romantic colouring.  The LPO’s sighing strings captured the Tchaikovskian flavour of the second movement to perfection and once again Mälkki allowed the storm clouds to build in a powerful elemental way.  The scherzo with its pulsating pizzicato strings, driving timpani and darting woodwind solos had enormous power and vitality.  The LPO’s horns and woodwind evoked the Brucknerian nature scene of the trio to perfection.  The finale is marked Quasi una Fantasia although Sibelius probably had Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet more in mind than Beethoven’s Op 27 piano sonatas (which have the same marking).  The fluctuations in mood and tempo were well handled by Mälkki who shaped the material in an assured way.  One had a sense of a powerful drama unfolding and much of the music was heartfelt and uplifting.

Overall, superb playing by all the performers and Mälkki and Rana are clearly both names  to watch out for.  Marin Alsop asked at the Proms who would be the next woman to conduct the last night – Mälkki would certainly be a very good candidate.

Robert Beattie

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