The Best Possible Case Made for Dvořák’s Unfairly Maligned Piano Concerto


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sibelius, Dvořák, Bartók: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Karina Canellakis (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 10.10.2018. (CS)

Karina Canellakis (c) Mathias Bothor

Karina Canellakis (c) Mathias Bothor

SibeliusPohjola’s Daughter Op.49
Dvořák – Piano Concerto in G minor Op.33
Bartók – Concerto for Orchestra Sz.116

There are some programmes that, when one is leafing through the season’s offerings, immediately catch one’s eye and propel one towards the box office.  It might be the opportunity to hear a seldom-performed work, a favourite soloist or conductor, or a striking juxtaposition that makes a particular listing stand out from the crowd.  This concert by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, in which conductor Karina Canellakis was making her debut with the orchestra, didn’t at first glance seem particularly striking: three works faintly linked by the tinge of nationalism, rich orchestrations and potent story-telling.  But, two recent musical experiences encouraged me not simply to turn the page but to head to the Royal Festival Hall.  First, I’d enjoyed the results of the combination of no-nonsense efficiency and sensitive expression which Canellakis displayed at the Proms this summer and, second, I have rather a soft spot for Dvořák’s infrequently performed and oft-maligned Piano Concerto, having been won over by Stephen Hough’s championing of the work, and his recent recording on the Hyperion label. And, in the event, the evening’s music-making exceeded my hopeful expectations.

Frequently disparaged for its pianistic ineffectiveness – ‘written as if for two right hands’ has been a frequently complaint, or in Hough’s words, ‘for ten thumbs’ – and the inconsistency of its melodic invention, the Concerto even suffered the humiliation of being supplemented by Wilém Kurz’s re-working of the solo part when it was published in Otakar Šourek’s Complete Edition of the composer’s works.  Pierre-Laurent Aimard didn’t make it seem hard work, though.  There was a clarity and lightness that carried the Allegro agitato forward, fluidly and persuasively; the music seemed to float above buoyant celli and double bass pizzicato, and Canellakis created space for the solo lines to speak easily through the sometimes dense textures.  This was disciplined playing from the LPO.  Aimard was able to venture an almost imperceptible first entry – a relaxed entry into the conversation rather than a struggle to be heard – and he found a brightness, even sparkle, in the passages of running thirds.  His pleasure in the piano’s exchanges with the orchestra was evident, and Canellakis’s supportive approach – the work is more symphonic discussion that combative competition – was effective, with judicious injections of drama from pungent woodwind and surging strings.  There was no exhibitionism from Aimard in the virtuosic cadenza: he sought throughout the movement, to highlight its poise, lyricism and reflective quality – at times one sensed the grace of Mozart, the melodism of Mendelssohn and the pensiveness of Chopin, and if all such parts did not necessarily come together into a coherent whole, then it was no less pleasurable.

That the Andante sostenuto might be rather richer in Romantic resonance was apparent from the gentle warmth of the strings and horns in the opening bars, where Canellakis made much of the strangely nuanced harmony.  Aimard gave the piano song a beautiful ruminative quality, and the prevailing orchestral piano added to the dreaminess.  The piano’s accented call-to-attention at the start of the Allegro con fuoco snapped us from our reverie, though, but here the not-too-hasty tempo chosen by Aimard and Canellakis ensured that the vibrant movement was a dance-like frolic rather than an overblown romp.  The final accelerando demonstrated the control exercised by both soloist and conductor, as the increasing excitement of the close was capped by one last surge into the final few bars.  “Utterly charming,” was the immediate response of my guest, and the audience seemed inclined to concur.  Aimard and Canellakis had given this neglected concerto a good airing – literally and figuratively – and the results were refreshing.

The concert had opened with Sibelius’s ‘symphonic fantasia’, Pohjola’s Daughter.  Canellakis told its mystical, magical tale, derived from the Kalavela, with a musical brush loaded with gloriously diverse colours, truly conjuring an image of the eponymous derisive maiden, astride a rainbow, challenging the smitten Väinämöinen to tie an egg in knots.  The divided celli chords of the opening established a serenity which was quickly expelled by busy string passages and fragments of melody from the woodwind, all anchored by the composer’s characteristic dark undertow – gloriously supplied here by the LPO’s eight-strong double bass section.  The timbral riches were many and diverse: the juxtaposition of glowing bass clarinet and reedy oboes; or the blend of trilling timpani, harp glissandi and flutters from flute and clarinet.  The drama and authority of the performance blossomed into a wild coda which vanished mysteriously into the ether, the double basses aptly having the final, evaporating word.

Canellakis shared a long look with her cellists and double bassists at the start of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.  Their subsequent whisper seemed to herald from the distance, inviting in the muted strings and flutes, and again it was clear that Canellakis had the measure of the drama of this summit of twentieth-century symphonic music.  The transitions between moods were purposeful and her adeptness at communicating precisely and efficiently was as impressive as it had been at the Royal Albert Hall earlier this summer: her baton draws shapes of diverse character and size, one moment swirling delicately, then circling expansively, coaxing intimacy then flicking with quasi-mechanical briskness.  The LPO certainly ‘got’ her messages and played with tremendous style and commitment.  Whether Canellakis quite had full command of the overall arc binding the Concerto’s ebbs and flows, I’m not sure.  After the stern first movement, the flighty duets of the Giuoco delle coppie didn’t seem either quite flippant enough or sufficiently tinged by imminent menace.  But, the Elegia had the right balance of elegance and passion, and a lovely slenderness that imbued details that might seem insubstantial with a telling poetry, while the fugue of the Finale was expertly delineated.

After the premiere of the Concerto, in Boston, in December 1944, which Bartók attended against the advice of his doctors, the rapturous reception reportedly led the composer to remark, ‘It was worth the while’.  This concert by the LPO was very much more than ‘worth the while’.  In 2019, Canellakis becomes Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic; I hope that she finds opportunity to visit London regularly.

Claire Seymour



  1. Douglas Dutton says:

    Hurray for the timely, as in ‘about time,’ endorsement of the Dvorak Piano Concerto. It is a wonderful piece, with its own quirky constructions, and one must wonder how a negative sentiment arises. To these ears, there is more than considerable charm in the entirety of the concerto, and it buoys me to find it is being performed. It isn’t Brahms, nor is it Liszt, but there was never any reason for it to be. Nor is it Busoni, for it sings and dances with the best of the piano repertory. With an advocate like Aimard in its corner, we ought to be getting our own performances here in The States.

Leave a Reply to Douglas Dutton

Recent Reviews

Season Previews

  • UPDATED ONLINE NEWS! IMPACT OF CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19) PANDEMIC __________________________________
  • NEW! BBC Proms turns 125 years old – 17 July to 12 September 2020 __________________________________
  • NEW! Opera North in 2020-2021 – postponements and plans __________________________________
  • NEW! Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich 2020-2021 __________________________________
  • UPDATED! Glyndebourne Festival Opera opens for a 2020 summer season __________________________________
  • NEW! Baritone Federico Longhi’s Rigoletto is part of Parma’s June Verdian renaissance __________________________________
  • NEW! 69th Wexford Festival Opera – 11 to 18 October 2020 __________________________________
  • NEW! Dresden’s Semperoper reopens with Anna Netrebko on 19 June __________________________________
  • NEW! Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal in 2020-21 __________________________________
  • NEW! LMP’s first UK chamber orchestra performances since Covid-19 struck __________________________________
  • NEW! Oxford Lieder Festival – 10-17 October 2020 __________________________________
  • NEW! The Metropolitan Opera (2020–)2021 season update __________________________________
  • NEW! Royal Opera House announces first live concert since beginning of lockdown __________________________________
  • NEW! Semi-staged Das Rheingold on Deutsche Oper Berlin’s parking deck from 12 June __________________________________
  • NEW! A breath of fresh air: Opera Holland Park announces 2021 season __________________________________
  • NEW! Grange Park Opera’s 2020 Found Season – 4 June to 12 July __________________________________
  • UPDATED! 2020 Salzburg Festival – 1 to 30 August __________________________________
  • NEW! English Music Festival’s 2020 online series of concerts and talks __________________________________
  • The Singapore Symphony in 2020-2021 __________________________________
  • Subscribe to Free Review Summary Newsletter

    Search S&H

    News and Featured Articles

  • NEW! We’ll be back! The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra weathering the Covid-19 storm __________________________________
  • NEW! World Ballet School Day – inaugural edition 7 July 2020 __________________________________
  • UPDATED! Longborough Festival Opera launches podcast and extraordinary generosity of the audience __________________________________
  • NEW! The Music Critics Association of North America Best New Opera Award to Blue __________________________________
  • NEW! Lincoln Center honors Pride with a light installation on its iconic plaza __________________________________
  • R.I.P. Dame Vera Lynn (1917-2020): Did we really need Vera Lynn during the war? __________________________________
  • NEW! What price Sherlock Holmes? __________________________________
  • NEW! BBC to show the ROH’s first post-lockdown performance and their other recent music news __________________________________
  • NEW! Woody Allen comes back fighting with a book and A Rainy Day in New York __________________________________
  • NEW! Educating Rita, says who? __________________________________
  • NEW! 2020 Three Choirs Festival – postponed __________________________________
  • NEW! Need to escape reality? Enter into the magical world of composer David Hertzberg __________________________________
  • NEW! BTHVN2020 – Beethoven anniversary goes into overtime __________________________________
  • Archives by Week

    Archives by Month