A Romantic Programme Benefits from Vladimir Jurowski’s Imaginative Direction

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Glinka, Chopin and Rachmaninoff: Jan Lisiecki (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 14.12.2016. (AS)

Glinka – Waltz Fantasy

Chopin – Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11

Rachmaninoff – Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13

Given the length of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto, Vladimir Jurowski would have been justified in following the modern trend and plunging straight into this work at the beginning of the concert. But no, as usual his imaginative programme planning had devised something extra, a piquant morsel in the shape of the rarely heard Glinka Waltz Fantasy. This was an ideal curtain raiser, graceful, charming and given the most tender and sympathetic performance by orchestra and conductor. It was a particularly nice touch for Jurowski to persuade the first trombone to play his brief solo with a touch of old Russian-style vibrato.

Time was when it was sufficient to provide a routinely played and cut version of the Chopin concerto’s long orchestral exposition in preparation for the soloist’s entry, but not now, and here it was notable how much care and attention Jurowski gave to Chopin’s somewhat unrewarding orchestral writing. Jan Lisiecki at once showed that he was going to strike an individual path. His phrasing had plenty of rather old-fashioned flexibility, sometimes getting near to upsetting the music’s natural flow, but without ever quite crossing the line between expressiveness and the imposition of wayward interpretative ploys. Jurowski’s watchful conducting ensured that soloist and orchestra were in close rapport at every turn, and altogether it was a refreshing and attractive reading of the movement. How sad that it should have been rewarded at the end by an irritating outbreak of applause that quite destroyed the atmosphere that Lisiecki had created. (Sprinklings of clapping continued to dog the ends of movements throughout the concert – I thought Royal Festival Hall audiences knew better than that.)

Perhaps Lisiecki’s concentration had been broken, since pulse changes in the slow movement seemed less spontaneous, and at moments the music’s progress halted and dragged a little. But the dance rhythms of the finale brought everything securely back on track: Lisiecki responded to them with attractive flourishes of phrase and all ended well.

I rather wish that the seemingly obligatory solo encore had not been performed, since Lisiecki’s playing of “Träumerei” from Schumann’s Kinderszenen most certainly did cross the line between expressiveness and willful distortion.

Is it not time that Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony escaped from the shackles of repeated accounts of its disastrous first performance? Plenty of other pieces now regularly played suffered similar initial fates. Judged on its own merits, without the history, the symphony surely emerges as a fine romantic work, which contains certain features – particularly unusual timbres in the slow movement – that we don’t hear again in Rachmaninoff’s orchestral output. Jurowski clearly has no doubt as to the work’s pedigree, and his intensely committed performance, wonderfully played by the LPO, made as convincing a case for it as could be – urgent, strongly emphatic rhythms in the first movement, for instance; a beautifully light, feathery touch in the second’s quicksilver scurryings, and the warmest of long arched phrases in the Larghetto.

The opening material of the finale was once used as an introduction to BBC Television’s Panorama programme in the 1960s. At that time the work was almost completely unknown – how far it has come since then. Jurowski and the LPO delivered this martial statement with taut urgency as a prelude to a strongly driven account of the movement as a whole. How cunning of Rachmaninoff to keep us waiting till the very end of the work for the huge and highly visible tam-tam to be struck. The appreciative audience seemed particularly to relish the dominant, reverberating thwacks on this instrument, and quite understandably so. They provided a special, uplifting and curiously heart-warming climax to the end of the evening.

Alan Sanders

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