United Kingdom Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky: Khatia Buniatishvili (piano), London Symphony Orchestra / Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 29.10.2017. (CS)
Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor Op.18
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.4 in F minor Op.36
There are some pieces of music whose familiarity can breed complacency in the listener. Brief Encounter, The Seven Year Itch, I’ve Always Loved You, Grand Hotel, songs by Eric Carmen, Frank Sinatra and countless other popular artists: Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto has been and remains a ubiquitous presence in popular culture. But, from the moment that Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili played the opening chords of the Moderato it was as if I had never heard this concerto before. The quietly caressed clusters heralded a performance that really did feel revelatory.
It was clear from these opening bars that melodramatic posturing and sentimental over-egging were not on Buniatishvili’s agenda. She released a recording of this concerto (along with Rachmaninov’s Third) earlier this year, and here she conveyed the impression of deep immersion and careful thought about what the music ‘means’ to her. One had to listen hard to discern the soft pianissimo chords in the right hand – and, how much more challenging it is to place each note of the chord evenly when played so delicately – while the low left-hand Fs throbbed below, faintly but firmly, gradually acquiring weight, then suddenly bursting with a power which seemed to ‘release’ the clarinet and strings’ dark first theme with propelling force. Noseda followed his soloist’s lead, containing the strings’ G-string resonance, saving the ‘passion’ for later.
Throughout the movement, Buniatishvili played ‘with’ rather than ‘over’ the orchestra: during a quiet passage for horns, strings and piano, there was an almost chamber music precision and exchange – greatly assisted by Noseda’s attentiveness. Indeed, the conductor did have to keep his wits about him as occasionally Buniatishvili suddenly pressed the accelerator pedal, as if consumed by some inner force, surging forwards with a strong, unstoppable will. One could see Noseda react instantly – a slight bend of the knees, crouching forwards, flicking the baton with increased tautness – and the LSO responded with barely a whisker of hesitation. There were moments where the pianist reminded us of her dominance – when leaps to the upper register sparkled with demonic brightness, for example. But, Noseda allowed his players their moments in the foreground, shaping the woodwind and cello melodies, in particular, with a gentle lyricism that never slipped into saccharine slushiness. In the closing bars, as the LSO accelerated and swelled through the pounding crotchets which almost punch their way to the final cadence, Buniatishvili, leaping from her piano stool, at last allowed the inner fire to show itself.
It was a momentary flash of flame, however; the muted opening of the Adagio sostenuto immediately restored tranquillity and self-possession. Buniatishvili’s triplet quavers were spun with unwavering equanimity and gentleness. The tempo seemed quite slow, and there was little emphasis on Rachmaninov’s rhythmic displacements; thus, there was less expressive tension than is often present, but the cool evenness of the piano allowed Noseda to draw forth the flute and clarinet, whose melodies were shaped with care and grace. Buniatishvili contained the latent energy until the movement’s brief cadenza, which exploded almost savagely; but, even here, freedom, slenderness and silence were as important as assertiveness. The strings’ ensuing theme was exquisitely phrased, demonstratively eloquent but never droopily doleful, and the piano’s final, simple cadence was placed with other-worldly wistfulness.
There was never to be any self-indulgent wallowing, though, and any hint of ethereality was brusquely swept aside by the crisply articulated exchanges of the Allegro scherzando, the tuba’s quiet punctuations adding a jot of mischievousness. The pace was fast and Noseda impressively kept the orchestra on a tight rein, ensuring precision, while never restraining the sense of growing exhilaration. Buniatishvili’s mastery of her instrument is so absolute that as she swept effortlessly through the complex passagework, every single note crystalline, I forgot about all questions of ‘difficulty’ and ‘technique’, and simply listened to – became immersed in – the music. Which is how it should be.
This tremendous performance impressively unified introspection and extroversion: the latter took precedence after the last statement of the proud Maestoso theme, as Buniatishvili issued a challenge to her musical partners and charged forward with a momentum that lifted her clean off her seat, as if floating on a crackling energy field. It was a force which spilled into an encore of enormous spontaneity and astonishing pianistics, Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody – the opening notes of which were played almost before the pianist had seated herself at the keyboard.
Noseda and the LSO had been set a hard act to follow, but their performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony in the second half of the concert was equally compelling, both musically and dramatically. Tchaikovsky’s letters, his three-month marriage, the symphony’s dedication to his patron Nadezhda von Meck, and the motto theme which opens the work, have all contributed to frequent speculation about the autobiographical ‘subtext’ of this symphony, as life and art seem to have become inextricably, and almost disastrously, entwined at this point in the composer’s life. But, Noseda needed no ‘sub-text’; he created autonomous, coherent and captivating ‘theatre’ from Tchaikovsky’s musical material.
The opening fanfare was a blazing call to attention (though slightly marred by an unfortunate split note from one of the horns). Noseda conjured a pressing urgency from the enlarged string section in the unstable waltz of the Moderato con anima, the swaying, tugging rhythms creating a feeling of both disquiet and resolve. One should note the terrific contribution of timpanist Nigel Thomas, here and throughout the symphony, in shaping the dramatic trajectory and structure. As the theme reached its climax the strings’ tone was truly ecstatic. Characterful solos from the clarinet and bassoon were a reminder of Tchaikovsky’s prowess as a composer of ballet scores (though the horns continued to have an ‘off-day’ with more prominent split notes and some unreliable tuning). There was enormous rhythmic vivacity and exciting unpredictability in the development section, and Noseda never once let the impetus flag: indeed, in the ever-faster sections of the coda, the strings seemed to have been inspired by Buniatishvili, almost lifted from their seats by the force of their headlong arpeggios, propelled by the timpani’s spine-tingling roar.
Warm pizzicati provided a soft bed for the oboe’s eloquent song at the start of the Andantino in moda di canzona. Noseda conveyed the irresistible pull of the dance through his physical grace and flexibility on the podium, but, standing straighter and taller, he was a more imposing figure in the majestic second theme. The close, though, was mysterious and restrained, a tinge of sadness lingering after the bassoon solo and low string pizzicati had faded into the ether.
The Scherzo (Pizzicato Ostinato) was vigorous, crisp and fresh, and Noseda traversed the movement’s shifts of gear with easy nonchalance. The accuracy, tonal variety and energy of the strings’ pizzicati were enthralling, while the woodwind trio was quite dry in tone, enabling the decorative ornamentations to flicker brilliantly. The LSO seemed determined at the start of the Finale: Allegro con fuoco to prove that they could match Buniatishvili for heat and fervour! But, Noseda allowed the moments of reflection their due weight too: there were darker hues to temper the bright, glowing colours. When the horns offered the final proclamation of the ‘fate’ motif, it seemed as if it had been hanging, suspended in the air, over the whole symphony. However, Noseda refused to allow the motto to gain the upper hand and, crouching low, spinning his baton in tight circles, then standing and enlarging his embrace, he urged the LSO to a blazing, triumphant conclusion.
Tchaikovsky wrote to Sergei Taneyev, who had been his student formerly: ‘Of course my symphony is programmatic, but this program is such that it cannot be formulated in words. That would excite ridicule and appear comic. Ought not a symphony – that is, the most lyrical of all forms – to be such a work? Should it not express everything for which there are no words, but which the soul wishes to express, and which requires to be expressed.’ Noseda certainly presented a performance of the Fourth Symphony which was true to Tchaikovsky’s ideal.
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