Night Ride and Sunrise, Op.55
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 (Pathétique)
Denis Matsuev (piano)
Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Tuesday, April 24, 2012
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We are awash in standard repertoire! Leif Segerstam – an Old Testament prophet lookalike – can be relied upon to avoid routine. He provided a fresh take on the ‘Pathétique’ Symphony and was a faithful accompanist to Denis Matsuev’s vulgarly loud, gratuitously embellished and vacuously macho ruining of Rachmaninov (poetic solos from Katy Woolley on horn and from Katherine Baker’s flute and the sheen and warmth of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s strings were saving graces) after which he stayed in the fairground for an empty, show-off (or so it seemed) paraphrase of an aria from Rossini’s Spanish hairdresser (Matsuev's left foot continuing to clatter on the wooden floor).
Segerstam’s view of the ‘Pathétique’ was compelling in its directness. Attention to dynamics and expression, contrasts of pessimism (Robin O’Neill’s opening bassoon solo offering a suitably lugubrious beginning) and optimism set up a negative-positive balance of uneasy tension without losing the shape of the first movement or its nostalgia and fury or its tremendous climax, trombones offering a dire summons. The second-movement ‘Waltz’ flowed (as it needs to), corners turned with balletic grace, the foreboding middle section another contrast. The succeeding ‘March’ was quick without being hectic. Come the concluding parade, Segerstam broadened the pace convincingly (as Fricsay and Martinon used to do) and then got silly when turning to the audience in a jolly manner to let the Philharmonia get on with it (nothing wrong with that, Svetlanov did the same thing, but at least he stayed facing the orchestra). Segerstam was all but inviting clapping and thus stymied his trump card, an attacca into the finale; he carried on, but better to have had this ultimate contrast of moods without such interruption. This slow movement emerged as unsentimental, a dignified death, if not without a rage for life. And then it went wrong! Those double bass heartbeats were potent enough, but Segerstam felt the need to add timpani strokes and, worse, closed the work with a bass drum roll, giving it the last word. All the previous good work (the Philharmonia on top form) was undone. Unnecessary, maestro.
Segerstam’s inclusion of a Sibelius rarity, if still a masterpiece, was welcome. Night Ride and Sunrise (1908, the enigmatic and disconsolate Fourth Symphony not far away) relays no specific story but we may imagine a man on horseback both at-one with and in trepidation of nature and finally thankful for the arrival of daybreak. It’s a remarkable piece, full of rhythmic energy and charge, then with a sense of wonderment leading to fulfilment. Segerstam was at his alchemist best, conjuring a crisply vigorous and colourful account, careful of detail and punctuation, the initial propulsion unflinching, the engagement with the environment exquisite and the rising sun signalled by resplendent brass. The Philharmonia Orchestra responded to Segerstam’s devoted and definitive conducting with outstanding playing.