United Kingdom Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff: Daniel Lozakovich (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Alpesh Chauhan (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 26.2.2022. (MBr)
Prokofiev – Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor
Rachmaninoff – Symphony No.2 in E minor
This second of the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s concerts to have been conducted by Klaus Mäkelä was instead taken by the young British conductor Alpesh Chauhan. Rather surprisingly, this was his Royal Festival Hall debut, but I think it will be one which he will probably not forget. Even if current historical events would partly shape this concert, it would also be remembered for music-making of compelling drama.
It was hard not to forget that two days before the concert Russia had invaded Ukraine. This was something brought very much closer to home by the LPO’s Artistic Director, Elena Dubinets, who is herself Moscow-born but married to a Ukrainian. In a speech before the concert began – and before Werbyzkyj’s Ukrainian National Anthem – she condemned the war instigated by the government of her native country against the people of his native country. It was a sentiment that united a capacity audience in the Royal Festival Hall. Concert programmes are, of course, devised years ahead – as this one was – although ironically both Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff had complicated relationships with their native Russia. Both works played in this concert were not written there although both are quintessentially Russian. Whatever the political and historical context of this concert one thing will, of course, stand out – that great music and art will always transcend the ugliness of the time or environment in which it is played. This was acknowledged by Dubinets herself.
The opening work was Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor. Played by the Swedish violinist Daniel Lozakovich – now 20 years old – the piece is radically different from its predecessor. It is also a departure from the brutalist Prokofiev, this work having been composed in Paris (but premiered in Madrid) for a French soloist. In a recent review of Lozakovich’s recording of the Beethoven concerto, I described Lozakovich as not being an overtly virtuoso player – even though his technique is flawless. There was much in his performance of the Prokofiev G minor that played to that side of what we heard. The focus was much less on what the fingers can do, and more on what sound they can get out of the instrument. Typical of that Beethoven, what you heard in the Prokofiev – notably in the Andante assai – was an uncommonly aristocratic sound: rich, elegant and intuitively romantic. But with that kind of playing comes one drawback in this concerto – a tendency to nurture the melodies, and phrase them with such beauty, that it becomes easy to underplay Prokofiev’s more satirical, coltish or witty scoring, especially in the final movement, an allegro. The bow did sometimes sound as if it was being scratched against the strings; there was an element of hoarseness or raspiness – it felt a touch elegantly done, however. Some soloists have, I think, a bristlier approach to this concerto. Lozakovich sees it in darker, more menacing terms. Some may have been misdirected to the view this was a safe performance; to me it seemed quite the opposite, however. There were flashes of danger you rarely get in this work.
Lozakovich has a very beguiling stage presence, so much so he draws you into what he is playing like a magnet. For much of the thirty minutes this performance lasted he may as well have been playing a solo violin work so out of focus were the orchestra. I might have found this unsettling in some concertos; it just about worked perfectly for me here.
Rachmaninoff’s great E minor Second Symphony has been played in several ways over the many years I have heard it in concert. I remember Svetlanov and the Philharmonia Orchestra giving concerts of this symphony that had inexorable, monumental power – also taken at extremely dangerous tempos – that no other conductor could ever hope to rival. Previn could make this symphony sound like the Sibelius of the Fourth Symphony so tenebrous would he make the London Symphony Orchestra or Munich Philharmonic play it. These performances will never fade from the memory; they haunt you. Alpesh Chauhan may not have come close to equalling either Svetlanov or Previn but he gave a fabulously assured reading of the symphony and chose an entirely different approach in doing so, maybe even risky. As is common today, the symphony was performed uncut (although without the first movement’s exposition repeat) and without corruptions, such as the timpani ending to the first movement (that is, it returns to the score).
Chauhan does not see this symphony in vast architectural terms like Svetlanov, and nor does he see it as bleakly as Previn did. But he does share with Previn the urgency of pace in this symphony, especially in the outer movements, and a similar expressiveness and ease of phrasing in the Adagio. He had one advantage for the opening of the Largo – the LPO’s cellos and basses. Their dark, deep sound resonated beautifully in that lengthy beginning motto and it would become a feature of this performance which would contribute to its impressive tonal weight.
Chauhan’s tendency for quick tempos could have made the climax in the first movement difficult to manage but his touch proved somewhat mercurial – or perhaps lucky. Woodwind and brass didn’t feel under pressure here, notably during their repeated fanfares for the second theme, and where there is sometimes a weakening of tension after that second theme, this wasn’t the case here. But as blistering as some of the tempos were, Chauhan never allowed the music’s great string writing to become less Romantic than it should be, those sweeping pages of it during the development were superbly done. And, if not all of Rachmaninoff’s score marking were taken at value – the second theme may have veered slightly off the moderato benchmark – where it was sometimes important it mattered that he got it right. Rachmaninoff marks the final note of the first movement – played only on cellos and double basses– sff (subito fortissimo). There was no hesitation about that here: it was bowed like the firing of a bullet, so powerfully was it done. But Chauhan is a cellist; he knew precisely what he was looking for.
The Scherzo was so thrillingly done I didn’t mind the lapses in the playing – violins sometimes sounded a little flustered, woodwind entries were uncertain. Chauhan drove the music hard – but again cellos and basses would become the axis on which this symphony would spin. The staccato playing for woodwind and horns was as wonderful as the freedom he gave to individual players – the oboe and bassoon phrasing was ethereal and imaginative. The Adagio was for the most part ravishingly done. Chauhan eschewed the sappy, cloying sentimentality heard in some performances – although it certainly wasn’t remote – and this is possibly why the clarinet solo – played by Benjamin Mellefont – sounded less generous in its spaciousness. As beautifully played as it was, this solo leaned towards the phlegmatic rather than the languorous. This was done slightly differently by Chauhan when this same melody was restated in the violins and a solo horn where the effect was rather more intense (as would also happen again in the final movement).
The Finale, in one sense a vast coda (although it has its own), ties everything we have heard before it together. It is a movement that can be difficult to apply the break to (although Chauhan managed without needing too much effort), especially when we reach the second theme on the cellos’ bottom register and the clarinet theme of the Adagio returns. Chauhan would take a highly charged approach to the Allegro vivace section, too, and yet individual woodwind solos were full of character, pizzicato octaves on violins spun off cleanly, and the brass were well-blended.
There was much in Chauhan’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s E minor that was superb: it was rich, dark and warm in the way that colours emerged from inside it. The scoring is opulent in this work but it is varied and Chauhan was successful in uncovering that, even though he took the risk of playing the symphony at a brisker tempo than would normally have allowed many of those things to have come through quite as well as they did. If the perspective sometimes veered to the right side of the orchestra – towards the cellos, basses, trombones, tubas and horns this was perhaps a conscious decision by Chauhan to take the symphony into darker territory at times.
I sometimes felt Chauhan’s view of this symphony, or this performance of it, felt improvisational, its long symphonic journey being mapped out on the hoof. One felt danger in this Rachmaninoff Second, where the orchestra may have needed just a safer hand – perhaps under-rehearsal (unsurprising) or simply a younger conductor on a road to self-discovery – or, perhaps, even a conductor like Svetlanov or Furtwängler who had flashes of brilliance in the moment that strayed well beyond rehearsals. In the end, the reasons mattered less because the results were largely thrilling.