Opening Concert in Cardiff’s International Season

17/10/2018

Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Glinka: Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Alondra de la Parra (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 16.10.2018. (PCG)

Benjamin Grosvenor (c) Patrick Allen/Opera Omnia

Benjamin Grosvenor (c) Patrick Allen/Opera Omnia

GlinkaRuslan and Ludmila, Overture
Chopin – Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor Op.21
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.5 in E minor Op.64

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony is probably the most difficult of his last three major works in that form to bring off satisfactorily in performance. The two central movements, lyrical and balletic by turns, can produce a dangerously disparate effect. The composer’s attempts to bind them into the whole by means of a recurring motto theme can sound mechanical – abrupt in the Andante cantabile second movement, and simply unmotivated in the third movement waltz. This most certainly was not the case in this performance, where Alondra de la Parra incorporated the structural devices into a most satisfactory unity. The statement of the motto at the opening was then properly portentous; its apotheosis in the finale took on the form of a triumphal march leading to a series of ferocious climaxes which taxed the strings of the London Philharmonic to the limit but were comprehensively surmounted and rightly brought the audience cheering to its feet. Nor were the dance-like sections of the score slighted. The panther-like movements of the conductor on the podium may have had their theatrical elements, but they served to raise the excitement in the outer movements to fever pitch. John Ryan’s horn solo in the second movement was beautifully inflected without sounding becalmed, and the response from the cellos was heart-rending. The failure to divide the violins left and right across the platform was regrettable, but is not so damaging in this symphony as in the Pathétique.

The concert had begun in equally coruscating form with the overture to Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila, the only work by this composer which we nowadays encounter with any regularity in live performance. It is correctly regarded as an orchestral showpiece (one wonders, not without trepidation, what it would have sounded like at the time of its première with the standard of Russian orchestras at the period) but the LPO and de la Parra took advantage of every opportunity for delicate phrasing without sacrificing the sense of onward-rushing turmoil.

Between these two torrents of Russian romanticism, the withdrawn nature of Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto (actually his first-composed, although published at his second) produced a peculiarly enervated effect. Chopin’s use of his orchestra has none of the colour of Glinka or Tchaikovsky, but even so the louder climaxes lacked punch. Benjamin Grosvenor clearly relished the torrents of decorative filigree which Chopin weaves about his themes, but it is really only in the beautiful slow movement that these tug at the heartstrings in the way that the composer can so often achieve in his solo music for the instrument. Even the lively finale, with an unexpected new theme emerging just as the rondo material seems to be running out of steam, does not really bring a sense of conclusion.

At the end Grosvenor returned to the stage, standing in front of the piano as if about to make an announcement, but then he simply sat down and played an encore without advising the audience what it was. Now, he had done the same three years ago at a BBC concert in this hall, when even the BBC staff at the hall were unable to identify the piece played – some very obscure (and very beautiful, and very welcome) Mompou – to concerned members of the audience. At that time I had entered a heartfelt plea that artists should not leave their paying customers in the dark like this! I would go further now. I would say that a failure to advise the audience what you are playing is not good manners, and may smack of elitism. Even if the encore piece is something as well-known and popular as Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’, there will be some listeners who will not have heard it before and might be interested to learn what it is. I have been told by St David’s Hall management that they have asked all performers to make a brief announcement – even just title and composer – before an encore is played. Obviously performers are not listening. (For the record, the piece was ‘Erotik’, Op.43 No.5, one of Grieg’s Lyric pieces, certainly not a conventional choice if not as unexpected as the Mompou.)

Apart from that complaint (which certainly did not reflect on the quality of the music-making itself), this concert constituted a very worthy opener to the St David’s Hall series of ‘international concerts’ for 2018-2019. Alondra de la Parra is clearly racking up an impressive checklist of international appearances, and her venture from Latin America into Russian territory speaks volumes for her ability to encompass a wide range of repertoire. I look forward to encountering her again. In the meantime, the LPO is repeating this programme in Basingstoke (17 October), Royal Festival Hall, London (19 October) and Brighton (20 October) when Benjamin Grosvenor will – perhaps more appropriately in the musical surroundings – be giving Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto rather than Chopin’s. Audiences at those venues should make every effort to catch these concerts.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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