A clash of titans: Santtu conducts Stravinsky Part I: Firebird

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prokofiev, Stravinsky: Behzod Abduraimov (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Santtu Matias-Rouvali (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 18.5.2023. (JC)

Santtu Matias-Rouvali

Prokofiev – Scythian Suite, Op.20; Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.16
Stravinsky – The Firebird, Suite (1945)

The Philharmonia Orchestra concert led by Principal Conductor Santtu Matias-Rouvali was a clash of titans in many senses of the phrase. As the first of a two-part concert showcasing the orchestral masterpieces of Stravinsky, this first concert paired the composer’s massive Firebird Suite with the equally colossal Second Piano Concerto of Stravinsky’s greatest contemporary, Prokofiev, with whom he crossed swords in Paris, then the cultural centre of Europe. A programme featuring the masterworks of two of the twentieth century’s most daring and notorious composers promised to be an evening spent on the edge of one’s seat, but at times the interpretative tension between the two great performers stretched it to a teetering tightrope walk.

Behzod Abduraimov’s vision of Prokofiev’s monumental and terrifyingly challenging Second Piano Concerto was intense and dark. He released an astonishing amount of energy in the first movement which had begun building up the moment he started the concerto in a heavy and brooding manner. It was unfortunate that this power overwhelmed him and cost him a memory slip, leading him to miss out the climactic parts of the gigantic cadenza in the first movement, and causing many hearts in the audience to thump in terror. To our amazement, Abduraimov recovered with incredible speed and, unfazed, charged into the semi quaver-filled second movement fearlessly, emerging unscathed. Nevertheless, his playing didn’t fully settle — neither did our hearts — until the fourth movement, in which his personal vision of Prokofiev’s music, the colours he evoked from the piano, really shone through especially in the solo moments.

Although Santtu and the orchestra were quick to respond, it was clear that the conductor and soloist had different tempi in mind. While Abduraimov clearly had an idea of how he wanted the concerto to sound and was eager to push the tempo along, there were times when the orchestra did not follow as quickly, thus contributing to the slightly hectic quality of the performance. Abduraimov’s vision is intensely clear, and so it is a shame that he wasn’t able to fully realise it with the Philharmonia Orchestra in this performance.

After that whirlwind of a performance, the equally demanding The Firebird Suitea selection from Stravinsky’s first major ballet – which was to be the centrepiece of the concert, instead seemed tamer in comparison. Much credit must be given to the soloists in the orchestra with their demanding parts, and I recall an especially beautiful horn solo. While the orchestra was able to unleash a big sound — supported by the incredibly tight percussion section — I found myself wishing for even more excess in the expressive sections of the music. Although Santtu’s rhythmic energy created excitement and fervour of a scale which matched the dimensions of the Royal Festival Hall, the indulgent and provoking decadence of the music seemed slightly glossed over.

Still, hats off to the orchestra for pulling off such a demanding and ambitious programme.

Jeremy Chan

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