United Kingdom Sibelius, Schumann, Tchaikovsky: Khatia Buniatishvili (piano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard (conductor, Royal Festival Hall, London, 3.5.2016. (GD)
Sibelius: Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op.106
Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36
The concert opened with an impressive rendition of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony. As his recordings of the complete works for violin and orchestra demonstrate, Dausgaard is a most attentive conductor of Sibelius, especially in the moulding of symphonic architectural structure. The symphony opened well with a clear timpani roll, and the ascending, syncopated C major to the remote key of A minor was well contoured. The following hymn-like free-flowing passage with violas and celli gradually building up to the first main climax was well balanced although I wanted more movement here, more con moto. The great themes, punctuated by the broad trombone idea were delivered with assurance and considerable power, although I would have welcomed a slightly more expansive unfolding. But generally this was impressively delivered. This was not power in the sense of mere loudness or whipped up energy but something emerging inexorably from the work’s tonal/harmonic structure, rather in the ‘magisterial’ manner we used to associate with Klemperer. The final ascending minor key clash of dissonance which shatters the preceding C major’s ring of hope was as convincingly conveyed as I have ever heard in concert or on record. The RPO played well despite some occasional and slight problems of ensemble.
One of the reasons I was greatly looking forward to this concert was to hear the Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili. With high praise from Martha Argerich I thought this was bound to be something quite extraordinary, and so it proved to be. Buniatishvili played the opening bars of the Schumann with crystal clarity, a clarity and finesse which she maintained throughout the whole concerto. In many ways this was an ‘old fashioned’ performance, but in the best sense of that term. One feature of this ‘old-fashioned’ outlook was the way in which both soloist and conductor slowed down for the more lyrical passages, and speeded up for the more dynamic/dramatic sequences. One of the advantages of this performance was the way in which soloist and conductor were in absolute accord, a real dialogue. Here I had the sense that Buniatishvili took the lead both in rehearsals and actual performance, but as soloist is this not as it should be? Throughout Dausgaard inspired some top rank playing. I particularly warmed to the way he clearly delineated the rhythmic impetus of the first movements march-like 2/4 theme. Buniatishvili played the first movement cadenza brilliantly, even though she introduced it with a huge rallentando, but she managed to convince, partly through her total musical conviction, and partly beause it organically corresponded to the tempo flexibility of the whole movement.
The beautifully economic F major intermezzo, was sensitively played by Buniatishvili with some quite extimate (to borrow a term from Jacques Lacan) pedalling. The A flat mid-section cello melody was also sensitively shaped but I do wish Dausgaard had held back a bit on the heavy vibrato, it started to sound like 19th century Parisian Salon music – quaint in its own way (and it didn’t seem to bother Buniatishvili) but a little too kitsch for Schumann. The ‘Allegro vivace’ A major finale went well for the most part. Its initial buoyant 3/4 flow sounding both resilient and assured. The second subject, overlaid with a 3/3 rhythmic pattern (the famous ‘deux-temps’ section) was caught to perfection. The cross-rhythm overlay between soloist and orchestra was superbly fashioned. with thrilling rhythmic cascades from Buniatishvili. Dausgaard (with pointed baton cues) conducted the A minor fugato section with great finesse and precision, and both soloist and conductor brought the concerto magnificently to its jubilant coda with its ‘irresistable’ ‘light touch’ (Tovey).
As an encore Buniatishvili played Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’, movement 3 of the ‘Bergamasque’ Suite inspired by a poem of Paul Verlaine. It was by far the slowest rendition I have heard . But she somehow sustained the song-like tone throughout, reminding me of Sviatoslav Richter who could also sustain outlandishly slow tempi. Outlandish also was Buniatishvili’s appearance in a tight fishtail vividly scarlet dress with a very low-cut back. Gone are the days of the young, and old, Clara Haskil, Annie Fischer and Myra Hess who all played down their physical appearance!
Dausgaard opened Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony with very prominent, braying horns declaiming the ‘fate motive’ in the home key of F minor. This was very imposing but my ears did not pick up the accompanying bassoons; although this might have had something to do with the rather restricted Festival Hall acoustic. The exposition theme with its ‘In movimento di valse’ interpolation mostly went very well although I would have welcomed a more buoyant lilt in the ‘valse’ theme, the kind of thing Mravinsky used to do so well. At the start of the development section Dausgaard, with some subtle rubato, made the transition to F minor sound natural and spontaneous. And the dramatic ‘con anima’ section at the end of the development was delivered with real dramatic power. All the developments abrupt changes in dynamic contrast and sharp cross-overs in the lower registers were delivered with sustained and trenchant mastery. The exposition restatement of the ‘fate’ motif and the dramatic coda (with some particularly well played and incisive timpani) were dramatically and musically convincing. The ‘andantino in modo di canzona’ opened with some splendidly phrased oboe playing. But by the time we reached the quasi-trio second theme in F major, I felt the need for a little more dance-like inflection – after all it is based on a Russian folk, dance theme. The scherzo ‘Pizzicato ostinato, allegro’ for once did not sound like a pizzicato run-through. Everything was superbly balanced and in place and in the trio, the folksy oboe peasant who has drunk a little bit too much wine sounded merry and raucous as befits this Russian musical vignette.
The ‘Allegro con fuoco’ finale was mostly very enjoyable. Its second theme based on the Russian folksong ‘In the field stood a birch-tree’ was nicely pointed without being over-emphasised. The re-statement of the brass ‘fate’ theme just before the coda made its effect but again I missed that incredible degree of contrasting menace with the preceding ‘out among the people’ festivities – Tchaikovsky’s own description of the finale’s main allegro – and the hushed horn phrases which initiate the coda, achieved so magically, by Mravinsky. Just before the final rush of ‘outdoor’ excitement Dausgaard’s tempo sounded a tad rushed, although he achieved an exciting crescendo to initiate the coda, which was again on the fast side. But with a very firm and sharp hold on dynamics and rhythm the coda was most vivid and exciting, with a tremendously powerful concluding timpani roll.
Overall, this was an exceedingly rewarding concert. The ‘Star’ of the concert was undoubtedly Buniatishvili, and I am eagerly looking forward to my next experience of this totally original pianistic phenomenon.