Chailly and the La Scala Orchestra Excel in Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rossini, Grieg, Tchaikovsky: Benjamin Grosvenor (piano); Filarmonica della Scala / Riccardo Chailly (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 21.1.2018. (CC)

Riccardo Chailly (c) Brescia e Amisano

Rossini La gazza ladra: – Overture

Grieg  – Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16

Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36

This was a rare opportunity to hear the La Scala Orchestra in its concert form, here making its first Barbican appearance under its new Music Director, Riccardo Chailly. The orchestra was founded in 1982 by Claudio Abbado and is clearly in fine hands under Chailly, a conductor whose interpretations have repeatedly impressed over the years.

Operatic overtures (plural, note) should come as no surprise, and here there were two: the opening Rossini and the orchestral encore, Verdi’s Overture to I Vespri Siciliani (announced from the podium by Maestro Chailly). Home turf for the Milan players, and how it showed. While the Rossini is in the orchestra’s blood, it was in their recent memory too, as only last year I reported on a live cinema showing at the Barbican of the entire opera from La Scala with Chailly at the helm (with a cast including Michele Pertusi and Serena Malfi: see review here). The Overture then was tremendous; as it was here. The two side-drum players on opposite sides of the stage set the atmosphere perfectly while string ensemble up high was brilliantly unanimous. Conducting from memory, Chailly found the perfect way with the piece, not least in his judging of the famous Rossini crescendos.

Benjamin Grosvenor was the soloist in the Grieg Piano Concerto in a performance in which the ear consistently gravitated towards the orchestra. The beautiful, burnished cello lines were the perfect case in point. A few ensemble hiccoughs between soloist and orchestra – three at critical structural points  – indicated the outlook was not fully agreed upon. Grosvenor’s sound (playing on a Steinway) could appear rather light, too. Again, the orchestra was superb in the slow movement, taken at a proper Adagio. This time it was the solo cello, Sandro Laffranchini, who stood out in his excellence. Grosvenor gave an encore: more Grieg, the Poème érotique from the Lyric Pieces, Op.43.

The performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, again conducted from memory, had real fire in its belly for most of its duration; a pity there was something of a falling at the final fence (the finale) in this regard. The brass was magnificent in the first movement (there was one moment showing how quickly Chailly can make corrections on the hoof, a repeated cell on the trumpet too loud in entry the second time). While there was the occasional moment of mis-balancing (woodwind detail drowned by strings), this was terrific playing. Superb oboe solos graced the second movement, where stunning clarinet and bassoon pianissimos met golden clarinet solos while the rhythmic precision associated with this conductor was heard fully in the Scherzo. Only the finale disappointed, even the opening blaze somehow blunted, not quite the dramatic stroke it can and should be, while later on the accumulating momentum was not fully involving.

It was involving enough, though, to generate sufficient audience enthusiasm for a substantial encore. That Verdi mentioned above contained superb shadings in the opening section before the stormy allegro brought fire once more into the picture, contrasting with webs of sonic magic. A superb, and generous, encore.

Colin Clarke

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