Paganini and Falstaff inspire Malofeev and Petrenko to a concert of the highest order

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rachmaninoff, Elgar: Alexander Malofeev (piano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 9.6.2024. (MBr)

Vasily Petrenko and the RPO © Frances Marshall

Rachmaninoff – Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Elgar Falstaff

One thing I have noticed about some orchestral concert programs in the United States in the last couple of years is their relative shortness; concerts around the hour mark are not uncommon. Even by those standards, however, this Royal Philharmonic Orchestra one was a brief affair with just over 50-minutes of programmed music. Less can always be risky, but that was not the case here: the choice of pianist, Alexander Malofeev, was inspired, the work he played Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini a big-draw piece. Elgar’s Falstaff is a rarer work in the concert hall these days – but it played to the strengths of both this orchestra and its conductor, Vasily Petrenko. Short perhaps, but the quality was of the highest order.

Earlier this year I reviewed Alexander Malofeev in an extraordinary Barbican Hall performance of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto (review here). There was nothing less brilliant, or less fascinating, about this one of the Rachmaninoff piece. The two works couldn’t be more different – although, at a stretch, the Prokofiev concerto does use a variation format in one of its movements (the second). What had been so interesting about Malofeev’s Prokofiev – the delicacy, the golden tone, the soft-edge, the balance and the elegance – became immediately apparent when one heard this Rachmaninoff; had one heard it the other way round the dazzling brilliance of his Prokofiev wouldn’t have been quite so surprising.

The Paganini caprices are hardly original inspirations for other composers – Liszt and Brahms used them, among others. But I have often found their use elsewhere less of a chore to listen to than with Paganini himself although, of course, composers are not simply instrumentalising each of them. Rachmaninoff (as did Liszt) used the Caprice 24, Op.1, although repetitions of it are few – rather we get double variations of it. What is, I think, true of the Rachmaninoff is that you are never quite far from escaping the shadow of the great violinist himself – and it is this which allows the pianist such discretion in performance.

Alexander Malofeev and the RPO © Frances Marshall

Clearly a virtuoso work, it is a revelation when it is played as a poetic one. Malofeev’s willingness to stress harmony, lightness of touch (his hands would sometimes float above the keyboard as if defying gravity), and devotion to playing the composer’s score markings (such as in the meno mosso, a tempo moderato of Variation 7) was often a surprise. It set up a brilliant contrast to that familiar Rachmaninoff theme – the Dies Irae – where Malofeev’s power was often accompanied with octaves that rang out like tolling bells (Variation 9).  What was unusual about the triplet of Variations (11 to 13) was how Malofeev took a progressive view of them rather than a more common one of playing them as heavy on the first, too understated on the minuet and overly dramatic on the octaves and chords on the last of them. This was about balance, about structure and it made the dramatic scale of the following two Variations more scintillating.

Variation 17 had a crestfallen quality to it – and the most gloriously shaded bronzed tone – before that most famous of the Variations, No.18. Perhaps this does look backwards to Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto, but in terms of interpretation and a pianist’s willingness to use rubato I am more inclined to view it as closer to the first meno mosso in the last movement of the Third Concerto. The climax is, of course, in the orchestra – it is the art and sensation of beauty that is in the piano, and that is captured immediately in the opening bars. I might have wanted just a little more contrast in the weight of the fingers on the keyboard, just a little more breadth between the notes (such as with Kyohei Sorita) – but this was still well beyond what one usually hears in the concert hall.

The remaining Variations are almost like a kind of coda to the work – an exciting finale of virtuosic playing (and back to the Dies Irae), with pianism that almost feels like it is being played on the hoof. Variation 19 had a tumultuous jig to it, Malofeev’s inexorable keyboard control a kind of dazzling ivory violin neck. Cyclones of notes were played with rapid accuracy through the cadenza – although as sonorous and stentorian as Malofeev made them they never sounded hazy, even though Paganini’s theme has itself been lost in the mist beneath them. The final flourish down the keyboard had dramatic brilliance – only for Malofeev to add that final touch with the flash of a finger and a blink of an eye.

Like Malofeev’s Prokofiev earlier this year, this had been dazzling stuff.  Perhaps the less obvious way he displays his virtuosity worked more in favour of the music here because Rachmaninoff makes this less of a showpiece, although it is surprising how many pianists think quite the opposite. There was a considerable amount of darkness in Malofeev’s interpretation, perhaps helped by Vasily Petrenko and the RPO adding to this in an orchestral accompaniment that was choreographed to play to the darker side of Rachmaninoff’s score. The Dies Irae sections really had quite sinister overtones and if the ghost of Paganini was not always in the pianist he sometimes appeared in Petrenko.

Being a short program there was no interval but rearranging the seating gave Vasily Petrenko some time to explain to the audience a little about Elgar’s Falstaff. It has been argued – certainly by Donald Tovey, and also, I think, by Norman del Mar – that there is some advantage to giving us an idea of what scores about historical figures are actually about. One can, of course, listen to a piece of music knowing nothing about it whatsoever – so how far is it important to know what the literary inspiration is for Falstaff and how Elgar converts these into musical ideas for what is a half-hour symphonic work? Petrenko’s narration of the story was a little convoluted – and a little disjointed – and if you had the £4 booklet you might have had a better chance of following Falstaff’s story. Having said that, you would completely have missed in the notes – but not from Petrenko’s little talk – gems that exist in the music itself such as Falstaff falling into a deep sleep in the tavern and this being heard in the orchestra through the ‘snoring’ on the timpani and tubas.

Falstaff was not well-received when it was first performed; today it is widely seen as Elgar’s finest orchestral work, bar his two complete symphonies. I think, in general, Petrenko took a rather fleet view of Falstaff – even if he generally had a very good idea of what the character of Falstaff should be like. There was no question that the RPO’s playing had both the depth and richness of playing to suggest something of the corpulence and girth of the man himself. Prince Hal is partly seen through the underbelly of London’s tavern life, and it is here that the tempi are often more frenetic. I think Petrenko was willing to take some risks to get the picture of the boisterous prince just right without taking the music to the cliff edge. There were wild trills in the woodwind (especially bassoons), some dazzling pizzicato in the strings, gorgeous harps (always such an Elgarian treat), and brass at fff that were explosive. You couldn’t have asked for a more thrilling tavern brawl – very sharp playing from the orchestra, riotous (yet controlled) tempos from Petrenko setting a picture of mayhem and turmoil. How remarkably like Richard Strauss this work can sound is often revealed at the close of the tavern scene – the ‘belching’ on the bass clarinet, and, yes, that wonderfully atmospheric ‘snoring’ on the timpani and tuba all so beautifully done here.

Falstaff’s ‘scarecrow army’ is really a caricature section and Petrenko delved deep here into near-comic territory. Some of the playing was wittily handled (trumpets and horns, especially) and his tempi were fiery. It made the coronation scene (where Prince Hal becomes Henry V) all the more exultant, the tempo statelier – indeed, some of the playing was truly monumental in scale (tambourines from the boisterous tavern scene are here replaced by resplendent cymbals resonating around the cathedral). The solo violin (Emily Davis) – again so reminiscent of Strauss in his tone poems – was a gorgeous moment of not just serenity but poignancy; a clarinet solo (Katerine Lacy) hauntingly prefaced the death of Falstaff, itself marked on the mournful side-drum.

A superb performance, of quite some stature, which uncovered many details of this gorgeous work.

Marc Bridle

1 thought on “Paganini and Falstaff inspire Malofeev and Petrenko to a concert of the highest order”

  1. This wasn’t so short. The Rachmaninov was around 25 minutes, the Elgar about 35 and there was an encore. What the reviewer perhaps didn’t know is that most if not all the seats were only £15. The hall was nearly full with a lot of youngsters. I thought Petrenko’s introduction to Falstaff showed a masterly understanding not just of the music but also of the Shakespeare Henry IV plays – and not in his first language.


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