There could not have been a more ‘popular’ classical music programme than this; in fact it seemed more reminiscent of the traditional Sunday-night concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. Lacking was the usually generous length of those Sunday entertainments, and at ticket prices of up to £40.00 each it was not good value for money. I don’t usually time performances, but the two works in these performances added to a total of 73 minutes. Given lengthy rehearsal time for such familiar fare would not have been needed, an example of that now-rare musical specimen, the overture, could and should have been included.
As it was, it seemed odd to hear the portentous opening of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto coming as if from nowhere and without any kind of prior call on the audience’s attention and concentration. It was at once clear however that Denis Kozhukhin would not set out to dazzle the near-capacity audience (or listeners to BBC Radio 3) with histrionics. His was a serious, direct approach to the music, conveyed with seemingly effortless virtuosity and beauty of tone. In the more reflective passages of the first movement his playing had a distinctive refined elegance and it was refreshing to hear this everyday music played with such care and respect, though throughout there was an underlying strength. The slow movement was simply and straightforwardly delivered, but it had an inward, yearning quality that was touching, and there was some scintillating, quicksilver playing in the finale. Altogether it was an unusually satisfying account of the solo part. Yuri Temirkanov and the Philharmonia Orchestra delivered a sympathetic, on-the-spot accompaniment, but the playing, though immaculate, was a notch or two below the soloist’s level of commitment. As an encore Kozhukhin delivered a crystal-clear, reflective reading of J. S. Bach’s Prelude in B minor from his Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann, in a piano transcription by Alexander Siloti.
Would Temirkanov give us a ‘New World’ Symphony with a Russian accent? The answer turned out to be an emphatic ‘no’. There is an affectingly old-fashioned approach in his conducting, very much in the style of the old Czech conductors: it was almost as if he had been listening to Talich’s recordings of the work, and he even made the Philharmonia play in a tonally beautiful fashion that was reminiscent of Czech orchestras. The strings in particular had a lovely, mellow sound. The first movement had a warm, joyous feel to it, and Temirkanov’s grasp of the music’s ebb and flow was masterly. In the Largo, the superlative Jill Crowther gave a poetic account of the cor anglais solo, the movement as a whole lovingly moulded by the conductor. The scherzo was slightly on the fast side, but no matter, since the pulse was dance-like and there was a deliciously rustic trio. Of the finale all I can say is that in every respect it seemed just right, and delivered in a fresh, exhilarating manner.