It was a game of two halves for the Philharmonia Orchestra in its concert under Long Yu. He is a major force in the musical life of China as he directs three of the country’s principal orchestras as well as being the founder and Artistic Director of the Beijing Music Festival.
Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture with its combination of energy and heroic feeling was lively and precise. Yu ensured that the opening motto for brass, strings and timpani was laid out with clarity and the scurrying strings were neat. The lyrical central episode for cellos failed to make much of a mark though.
George Li is a twenty-one-year-old Chinese-American who won the silver medal at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2015. He is a spirited pianist but it took him some time to assert his personality in Rachmaninov. His approach was agile and lyrical rather than barnstorming. The opening chords were well-placed and Li emphasised the homage to Liszt in the rhapsodic second subject. Yu seemed concerned not to swamp the pianist but passion was at quite a low ebb. The second movement fared better with Li offering meditative lyricism. Li delivered the main theme with unaffected nostalgia and the movement’s close was rapt. He brought prodigious lightness and delicacy to the alternating themes of the Finale but there was power in reserve for the closing peroration. Throughout, the accompaniment was attentive but phrasing was somewhat stiff.
As an encore Li played the Bizet/Horowitz Carmen Fantasy as the ultimate showstopper. The gypsy dance was taken at a furious pace but with dazzling precision and the mayhem of the final mighty chords was emphatically delivered. Li is a stylish pianist with a stunning technique.
Things were very different after the interval. Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony has been given so many outings in London in the last few years but Long Yu offered a reading that was well-prepared and distinctive. It is easy to forget the worldwide impact that this Symphony had after its premiere in 1937. Its Finale was even used (uncredited) in the 1941 Hollywood ice-skating musical Ice- Capades. It may offer greater musical directness than his Fourth Symphony but it has complexity of emotion and genuine ambiguity as to whether its suggests collaboration with the Stalinist state or carefully coded defiance.
The first movement had propulsion and drama with some startling changes of tempo. The opening strings were incisive and the contours of its grim landscape well-laid-out. Tension was maintained throughout and climaxes were powerful but carefully graded. Flute (Samuel Coles) and horn (Laurence Davies) were exquisite over the characteristic chugging strings. The following Scherzo offered relief and was earthy rather than sardonic, with rustic pizzicato strings and beery brass. There was a notable slowing for the violin and flute solos and the oboe’s ruminations over the movement’s subsidiary theme were beautifully done.
The heart of the performance was the Largo which Yu sees as an outpouring of sorrow rather than a statement of Expressionist agony. The Philharmonia strings were at their finest and were especially chilling as background to the glorious sequence midway through the movement when the each of the woodwinds delivers their solos. The close of the movement was tense as the funereal Mussorgskian theme is picked out by the harp and celesta. The brassy blast and thundering timpani of the Finale’s martial themes was a shocking contrast. Yu observed Shostakovich’s frequent changes of pace with frenzied energy and trenchant articulation. The central yearning phrase for strings and harp was beautifully delivered with real dramatic tension before the return of the concluding motorised brutalism. The question of who or what is triumphing remains unresolved but in Yu’s reading the thunderous concluding timpani strokes were oppressive rather than liberating.