The RPO on Fine Form at the Start of Their Seventieth Anniversary Year

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Roslavets, Ravel and Shostakovich: Ingrid Fliter (piano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Ilan Volkov (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 2.2.2016 (CS)

Roslavets: In the Hours of the New Moon
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major
Shostakovich: Symphony No.5

2016 marks the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s Platinum Year and the unassuming joyfulness of the playing of Argentine pianist Ingrid Fliter was just the thing for the RPO’s celebration, at the Royal Festival Hall, under the baton of Ilan Volkov, of 70 years at the forefront of music-making in the UK and beyond.

The piano’s first phrase in the Allegramante of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major glinted scintillatingly, and was matched by brazen playing from the brass.  Fliter nonchalantly met the movement’s demand for agility: her crossing hands flew over the keyboard with the lightest of movements, and the oscillations were crystalline.  There was verve and vigour too – perhaps a little too much, as Fliter’s intensity of feeling resulted in some noisy foot-stamping – but Volkov ensured that the showy audacity was complemented by gentleness and refinement.  Indeed, while the piano’s lower register rattled percussively and the strings showed they could turn on the schmaltz, Fliter herself seemed to emphasise the classicism of the score rather than its jazziness, and the delicate gestures – for harp and high flute – as well as the incisive percussion motifs cut sharply through.

In 2000, Fliter was awarded the silver medal at the International Frederick Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, and so it was not surprising that she showed an innate appreciation for the inflections of a melodic line in the beautiful Adagio assai, although instead of the glowing tone and impassioned eloquence that we might associate with the Chopin of the nocturnes, Fliter’s floating grace was reminiscent of the glacial poise of Satie’s Gnossiennes.  She, and Volkov, did not treat the rhythm too freely, preferring to let the music unfold organically, pushing forward a little with the transference of the theme to a lower register and warming the orchestral sound – which was suffused with Fliter’s undulating ripples – to accompany beguiling solos by the flute, oboe and cor anglais.  Similarly there was no indulgence with the appoggiaturas which colour the cadences; pianist and conductor let the music speak for itself.  The Presto was effervescent, but never so spirited that we could not distinguish the panoply of crisp solo contributions.  Precise playing from brass and horns aided the overall ensemble and Volkov kept a firm rein on proceedings.  Fliter was astonishingly relaxed through the cascading pyrotechnics, energetically leaping from her seat with the final left-hand thump.

Volkov, similarly, didn’t hang about in Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.  This was an urgent reading of the score, focusing more on its spirit of restlessness than its withdrawn introspections.  The opening of the Moderato had a canonic rigour worthy of Bach, the strings’ dotted rhythms tight and disciplined.  Indeed, the string playing throughout the movement was impressive: soaring with intensity, full-toned when accompanying the woodwind’s themes.  Volkov repeatedly injected pace, so that we felt swept along by the music’s arguments; but he was equally skilled at subduing the RPO after climactic outbursts.  The sparser textures of the concluding bars brought coolness: first the intertwining lines of oboe, clarinet and bassoon; then an expertly graded swell and fall in the horns; finally, the reintroduction of the opening rhythmic motif, in the lower strings, darkening and falling, until the only light was the sustained high A of leader Clio Gould and the celeste’s chromatic flicker.

The juxtaposition of opposing worlds was the driving force in the Allegretto, the heavy lurching of cellos and basses giving way to the E-flat clarinet’s piquant melody, which was in turn swept aside by the mocking, tripping dotted theme played first by wind and then by strings.  The leaping upbows of Gould’s solo – the bow far from the string – added to the sense of impending hysteria, but when passed to the flute the macabre theme took on a sweeter, calmer hue.  Once again, Volkov welded the manic chuckling and wild dancing together in a taut ensemble.

The multi-layered string textures of the Largo were expertly crafted, the anguished intensity of the massed sound built meticulously, as the searching voices, each in their turn, joined the third violins and violas, quiet but focused, then faded for the magical entry of harp and flute.  Towards the close of the movement, the strength of the lower strings’ tremolo was astonishing, as was the translucence of the first violins’ shimmering at the close.  In the Finale, the brass were finally let off the leash in an initial blaze of furious pride.  Shostakovich’s non troppo was dispensed with – but, Volkov had a sure grasp on the structure of the movement, and his control of successive accelerandi was masterly.  Perhaps, after the final ritenuto, the ensemble at the twist into the closing major-key section was not flawless, but after such committed playing who could grumble?  The explosive crashes of the timpani and bass drum in the final bars were apocalyptic in force.

The concert began in more enigmatic fashion, with Nikolai Roslavets’ tone poem In the Hours of the New Moon.  The Ukrainian composer’s work was little known until the 1980s, thanks to the advocates for ‘proletarian music’ who denounced Roslavets as an ‘enemy of the people’ and ransacked his apartment after his death, confiscating many manuscripts; and, as a result of the active suppression of his work by the Soviet authorities, who objected to the interest of this ‘Russian Schoenberg’ in modernist techniques and language.

In the Hours of the New Moon pre-dates his experiments with atonality, though; an early work, it probably dates from Roslavets’s student days at the Moscow Conservatory (c.1910-13), and one can detect a synthesis of influences – among them the orchestral colours of Richard Strauss, the harmonic language and structures of the French impressionists, the mysticism of Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy – but also more than a dash of originality.

Volkov and the RPO certainly made a case for Roslavets to be considered one of the foremost Russian modernists of his day.  The precision and transparency of the RPO’s playing demonstrated the composer’s sure command of large orchestral forces, and the range of his coloristic effects.  The ear was constantly drawn to new sounds and textures: oscillating divided cellos and basses trembled disturbingly; a low bass clarinet motif set against high strings created a spatial airiness; harp and woodwind created delicate pointillistic resonances.  The harmony drifted with a nebulousness worthy of Delius, but Volkov gave the work direction, building persuasively to the rhapsodic climactic tutti passages in which the string playing was again impressively robust and committed.  Some episodes reminded one of the sweeping waves of Debussy’s La Mer, others of the melodic mysteries of Bax’s Tintagel.  However, in the increasingly dark closing sections, which grew from meditative murmurings to a maelstrom of string tremolando, the voice was entirely Roslavets’ own.

Claire Seymour

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