LSO and Noseda explore Russian Roots in London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Prokofiev, Shostakovich: Denis Matsuev (piano), London Symphony Orchestra / Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 1.11.2019. (CS)

Denis Matsuev

Britten – Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes
Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor Op.16
Shostakovich – Symphony No.6 in B minor Op.54

During this 2019/20 season, as the London Symphony Orchestra celebrates 20 years of LSO live, the orchestra and its Principal Guest Conductor, Gianandrea Noseda, are continuing their Shostakovich cycle, performing the Sixth, Seventh and Ninth Symphonies in concerts which explore the history and heritage of Russian music and develop the season theme, Roots and Origins.

Given the adrenaline, athleticism and endurance that a pianist must summon simply to get through the score of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, let alone to play the notes with such astounding accuracy as we heard here at the Barbican Hall, Denis Matsuev cut a startlingly unruffled figure as he seated himself at the piano.  Thirty minutes later – almost, it seemed, as his hands were whipping the closing chords of the Finale tempestoso – he leapt to his feet and rushed to embrace Noseda.  If he’d worked up a sweat performing what is one the most technically demanding of all piano concertos, then his urbane calm revealed no hint of it.  It was a remarkable performance: after all, one critic at the September 1913 premiere, at which the student Prokofiev was himself the soloist, remarked that the concerto left its listeners ‘frozen with fright, hair standing on end’.

Admittedly, it’s a work that Matsuev performs regularly, describing it as ‘Prokofiev’s Everest’ and in ‘first place among all piano concertos’.  It demands gold-plated technical assurance and a combination of a sprinter’s muscular strength and a marathon-runner’s stamina.  Matsuev displayed both.  The Scherzo was dazzling, the finger-work dizzyingly deft; the Finale tempestoso was dark and intense, sometimes angry, and the folky stamp made its mark.  Matsuev doesn’t always resist the temptation to hammer the keys, though there is never any loss of utmost clarity and precision; and, the potency of his sound was appropriately monumental in the first-movement cadenza which escalated with ever more insistent drama into an explosive dissonance that it took the full might of the LSO to momentarily quell.  The Barbican Hall piano fortunately passed its own tests of stamina and sturdiness.

But, elsewhere in the Concerto, even if briefly and intermittently, there are moments of playfulness and lyricism, and these did not always make enough impact to counter the prevailing majesty and pride.  Matsuev’s playing fairly crackles with energy, but a little more spaciousness might have enhanced the pathos and poetry of the reflective passages in the final movement for example.  Noseda’s rather unyielding approach to rhythm did not help, either; there was a sense of charging forward at times, when an occasional pause for breath might have been advantageous.  And, there were places where the LSO were rather too heavy, as in the opening Moderato.

Matsuev’s encore was thus a palette cleansing wisp of cool air and grace: Lyadov’s Music Box.  After the deluge, such delicacy – a whispering keyboard touch and suavely subtle pedalling – was magical.

On Sunday evening, Matsuev, Noseda and the LSO return to the Barbican to delve further into Russian Roots: they will perform Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, preceded by Rimsky-Korsakov’s suite, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh.  On this occasion, the ‘overture’ was of a decidedly English origin and tone, though, Britten’s four Sea Interludes and the Passacaglia from Peter Grimes seemingly the odd man out.

This was a performance of the Sea Interludes that was most notable for the striking definition and quality of the orchestral colours.  The violin tone at the opening of ‘Dawn’ was as sharply etched as the sunlight prinking the water off Aldeburgh beach on a bright and icy February morning – what fine players the LSO fiddlers are.  Whether summoning the clarinet’s bubbling sun-on-water spray, the horn’s surges from the deep or the harp’s glitter of light, Noseda’s baton was a masterly paintbrush, and the LSO offered him a vivid palette into which to dip.  Again, though, I sensed a slight inflexibility in the overall approach to form and rhythm.  This was bold playing: in ‘Sunday Morning’ the trumpet shone exuberantly against the tolling bells which call the Borough’s inhabitants to church; in ‘Moonlight’ woodwind and percussion splashed cleanly against dark, low throbbings.  But, I missed the fluid ebb and flow of salty sea and wind, and of the graceful dip, twist and glide of the gulls above Aldeburgh strand.

After the interval, however, in Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony, the LSO and Noseda really got into their stride.  This is a work which seems to defy all conventions of genre and balance – the long first movement outstretches the second and third put together – and which it is a challenge to ‘understand’: the parts don’t seem to add up to a unified whole in the way that we might expect of a symphony.  But, Noseda and the LSO evinced conviction, purpose and courage.  The opening Largo never felt protracted: the strings brooded but they kept pushing forwards.  Noseda seemed to make a virtue of the fickleness of mood, relishing the shift from tragedy to satire and punchiness that is marked by the commencement of the second movement Allegro.  The iridescence of the LSO sound shone with particular vividness in the Presto finale.  Throughout the symphony there was plenty of heft and weight, and occasionally a striking anger, but the spirit was overwhelmingly restless – reminding us that the Symphony was two completed years after the triumphantly received Fifth, but that the psychological demons arising from censure and censorship had not been entirely dismissed.

Claire Seymour

This performance was recorded for LSO Live and will be broadcast on Medici TV on Wednesday 6th November.

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