United Kingdom Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Rimsky-Korsakov: Alexandre Kantorow (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Royal Festival Hall, London, 6.2.2022. (MBr)
Ravel – Boléro
Saint-Saéns – Piano Concerto No.2
Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherazade
This was – mostly – a fabulous concert; and it was not one that was unafraid to go very much off-leash in its virtuosity. It left a near-capacity Royal Festival Hall audience enthralled and completely engaged in works that can often lose their way in many performances.
Ravel’s Boléro is one of those pieces. There are, I think, three ways to approach this work. There is the Celibidache way in Copenhagen in 1971 – wild, almost prophetic, and of incinerating intensity. Then at the other extreme, there is Eschenbach in Tokyo in 2005 who does almost nothing except use his eyes throughout the entire performance. But from almost nothing comes a Boléro that is cemented in astonishing power. The third way – well, it’s what most – by no means all – other conductors do who don’t fall into the Celibidache or Eschenbach categories. In my experience it is those performances that have rarely worked for me.
The Eschenbach approach is revealing in one way because he implicitly trusts his orchestra to do almost everything (although he does happen to have the Orchestre de Paris in his gift here). The snare drum is the gravitational centre that draws everything into Boléro’s rhythmic orbit, not the conductor, in this performance. Each instrument is allowed to build its phrases off another; the entire lifeblood of this performance is that its vast crescendo becomes absolutely inexorable. It is the most unstoppable Boléro I know. (Both Celibidache and Eschenbach can be seen on YouTube, by the way.)
Santtu-Matias Rouvali followed the Eschenbach model here to a certain extent. He rarely felt the need to coax the Philharmonia Orchestra for the first half of this performance at all: beyond a mere flick of a wrist for a harp, a very slight lift of his fingers towards the cellos, a subtle click for the flute he barely used his hands at all (wisely, no baton). The trust he placed in the orchestra just to play on their own and breath the performance – to follow the rhythm of the snare drum, to listen to each other was remarkable. Not only did this performance flow, but it was also entirely gripping and ultimately monumentally powerful. Only later into the piece would Rouvali begin to subtly use his hands to shape details from the orchestra as if he were moulding clay; these were gestures that looked minimal but were underpinned by texture, colour and drama. If there was a reason why this performance sounded so free, had such elasticity, and yet proved so dynamic, it was because Rouvali seemed to become the core of the Philharmonia (as he often does in their concerts, in fact). All he needed to do was sweep his hands across the orchestra for the sound to become explosive – with the descent into E major double basses rumbled deeply, the bass clarinet, bassoons, and tuba shuddered like thunder and the bass drum and tam-tam were ear-shattering. I have rarely seen a conductor use just his hands in this work to get such coruscating power. It was simply thrilling.
Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto, played by the French pianist Alexandre Kantorow, was hardly less brilliant. I harbour a deep affection for this concerto – although it seems many of my pianist friends do not. It is a work of considerable technical difficulty, so much so that Saint-Saëns underestimated the scale of what he had composed when he came to give the premiere of the concerto in 1868. Kantorow is tall, elegant and willowy, although it is an appearance one should not be deceived by. He launched into the Bach-like opening of this concerto – almost a toccata – with much heavier weight than most pianists do and with an altogether grander kind of rubato which placed this concerto distinctly in the Romantic period. And it is also exactly the kind of performance we got of it, too, to the very end. It’s not precisely the French style, going back to Jeanne-Marie Darré, that one might have expected – although a refreshing one.
Kantorow plays with leonine power, but he has the mercurial touch of a philosopher and poet in much of what he plays – arguably a little expendable on some this concerto. Much of Kantorow’s performance seemed uncommonly close to how Nelson Freire played this work – the keyboard work is so dazzling, (just thrilling cross-handed playing, the fleet trills were athletic) and the pedalling so clean, that there is a galaxy of room – rather than a danger of falling into a chasm – for interpretation. Kantarow had youthfulness on his side so the work often sparkled – where the score is marked agitato, it was played that way. The tarantella couldn’t help but feel elegant, but elegance didn’t mask exhilarating speed and dashing, almost heroic, rhythmic security in a Presto that was on tempo. A dashing and memorable performance.
Rouvali’s and the Philharmonia’s Scheherazade was the least compelling work on the program for me. It had everything going for it: the playing was exquisite (and often more than this), Rouvali understands the importance of instrumental colour in this work, and, indeed, his ability to spotlight individual instruments was very fine. The solo violin, played by Benjamin Marquise Gilmore, was one of the finest I have heard in this piece in a concert. What was wrong with it was it hung fire even though the tempi for each of the four movements were well within the norm; they may even have been a little swift at times.
It’s a fact of life that some conductors – even great ones – don’t manage to get a performance to lift off at the start of ignition (Bernstein, for example). Rimsky-Korsakov made this work a kaleidoscope of images that need to be seen in the context of a much bigger picture and this can prove elusive for some conductors. Rouvali got half of it right – his paintbrushes were his flute, oboe, clarinet, trombone, horn, and violin and he had the composer’s paint in which to dip those instruments, it is just that he hadn’t put the canvas on the easel yet. The oriental scent of the work often fell a little flat – especially in ‘The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship’. Rouvali proved wise to let his ‘Scheherazade’ play his long solos without the need to come anywhere near them whatsoever; not all conductors do this. Where the performance finally did catch fire was in the shipwreck. Not only was it thrilling (with some really spectacular timpani playing throughout) it was finally the moment that this Scheherazade gripped you by the throat.
This was a Scheherazade that was easy to admire rather than enjoy. Karajan is supposed to have hated the work; I think for Rouvali it is just a work in progress.