The Philharmonia Orchestra’s odd pairing for a Sunday afternoon concert under Santtu-Matias Rouvali

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rachmaninov, Shostakovich: Bruce Liu (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Santtu-Matias Rouvali (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 7.4.2024.  (JR)

Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducts pianist Bruce Liu and the Philharmonia Orchestra © PO/Marc Gascoigne

Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.2, Op.18
Shostakovich – Symphony No.10, Op.93

This was an odd pairing for a Philharmonia Orchestra concert at the Royal Festival Hall on a warm afternoon. The ageing air-conditioning system thought it was still winter though outside temperatures exceeded twenty degrees. It was a sell-out concert and that meant the hall was rather too warm and certainly too stuffy. Afternoon concerts seem to attract a different audience to those on a weekday evening, a noticeably younger and mixed crowd, some tourists, all perhaps less used to regular concertgoing. It was good to see many children, but I did question the wisdom of their parents when selecting this particular concert – Rachmaninov yes, but Shostakovich?

I had not heard Bruce Liu play before; he is the young winner (in 2021) of the Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Canada’s The Globe and Mail has described him as having ‘rock-star status in the classical music world’. He is going on tour with, as here, Santtu-Matias Rouvali and the Philharmonia, and also Paavo Järvi and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich: clearly he is a talent to watch. He played Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto flawlessly, alternating physical power with deft finger-work. I felt Liu played too fast on occasions and did not really get to the heart of the work. It is apparently, according to one survey, the world’s most popular classical music piece but in the wrong hands it can border on sentimental schmaltz. I thought Liu’s reading was rather short on passion and the snap and crackle that underpin the work was missing entirely, Rouvali only providing rudimentary and superficial orchestral accompaniment. To add to the Friday Night is Music Night flavour of the concert (yet another example of BBC Radio 3 dumbing down) we were served with more Rachmaninov, with prepared orchestra, the composer’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the saccharine 18th variation as an encore.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra © PO/Marc Gascoigne

Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony has been wittily but accurately described as ’48 minutes of tragedy, despair and violence and two minutes of triumph’ (John Mangum, CEO Houston Symphony Orchestra) as it points up the misery of Soviet life in the Stalin era. It is not easy listening and, in its unremitting gloom and despondency, made for an odd bedfellow to the Rachmaninov. Although Rouvali was on top of the work and visibly washed out by the work’s close, he had to struggle to keep it together and the result was rather hard going and ultimately unsatisfying. There were fine solo contributions from Maura Marinucci (clarinet) and Rebecca Kozam (cor anglais). Scott Dickinson (Principal Viola) was eye-catchingly energetic, with his eyes firmly on his fellow principal string players. There was premature applause well before the conductor appeared and again after the second movement’s furious ending, reinforcing my view that many in the audience were new to this type of experience. That cannot be a bad thing.

John Rhodes

4 thoughts on “The Philharmonia Orchestra’s odd pairing for a Sunday afternoon concert under Santtu-Matias Rouvali”

  1. It was a joy to see the hall so full. An enthusiastic audience, standing ovations, some exhilarating playing by soloist and orchestra in some very challenging music — I don’t think I was at the same concert as your critic!

    • I heard the same concert at Bozar in Brussels on Wednesday. The Shostakovich was a breathtaking and mindblowing performance. The collective level of the woodwinds and strings was maybe the best experience I ever had (I’m almost reaching 500 classical concerts), with a special note for the principal clarinet (ex-Brussels Philharmonic, so it wasn’t the first time I heard her play).

  2. I’ve heard Bruce Liu played on many occasions – and yes I’ve heard his rendition of Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2 last summer in Germany (twice in fact!). Sadly I wasn’t at this London concert so I can’t comment much about this particular performance – but Liu’s playing is really special. He always manages to bring out different nuances, tone, colour to pieces and his playing always surprises with his fresh interpretations. I’m not surprised if his performance of Rachmaninov that day moved many hearts — and that is the true essence of classical music; because Liu’s playing always touches and convinces listeners at the end of the day.

  3. Bruce Liu is a rapidly rising star of the piano. I read with great interest the feedback from reviewers and audiences, especially those Bruce Liu concerts I have personally attended, which were more than twenty in total over the past two years. Bruce Liu has a special ability to create a piece of music in the here and now, each time bringing a freshness of interpretation and a unique beauty of sound. Among the qualities that characterise the pianist’s playing is a unique sensitivity to sound, always remaining in perfect harmony with the character of the piece. It is a beauty of sound resulting not so much from the pianist’s technical prowess, but from his exceptional musicality and interpretative inventiveness. Every concert by Bruce Liu is a unique and beautiful musical experience. This is manifested by the audience’s ovation after the performance of this extraordinary young artist.


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