Liszt’s rarely-heard From the Cradle to the Grave was composed in 1882 – a quarter of a century after he had completed his previous twelve symphonic poems, and was not given its première until forty-five years later. Despite the all-embracing title, the programmatic element is only noticeable when the opening reference to the composer’s for-piano Wiegenlied (Cradle Song, S198) suggests the beginning of life. In slow-fast-slow form the music incorporates modern-sounding harmonies; the mysterious opening section ends with an intense passage for violas and the violent middle section concludes with a spectacular solo from timpani. This is succeeded by a long-drawn winding down which progresses towards complete silence. Liszt provides much opportunity for expressive solo playing – taken here skilfully – during this enigmatic music.
From Pavel Kolesnikov’s firm yet gentle beginning it was clear that this would be a sensitive interpretation of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. Every melody was phrased with the utmost musicality with every inner line clearly drawn. Kolesnikov’s superb technique meant that no demanding passage ever troubled him. The precision of his left-hand, assisted by sparing use of the pedal enabled all detail to be audible even in the most full-blooded passages: virtuosity without showiness, part of a performance displaying great sympathy and agreement between the performers. The Andante con moto provided the ideal conversation piece, the keyboard passages gracefully calming the troubled orchestra and the Finale’s melodies were expressed with much depth of understanding.
Sensitivity was also the essence of Ilan Volkov’s approach to Mahler. The barely audible high strings with wonderfully evocative distant trumpets made the opening of the First Symphony magical. The music built inexorably, tense anticipation preceded each climax and how pleasing that where the percussion was involved, this section was not modest; various cymbals were used, the giant pair being reserved for major climaxes and bass drum was suitably forceful too. Balance was carefully calculated with just one unusual feature when oboe sometimes yielded to the strings’ countermelody. The Scherzo had just a hint of the implied portamento and the slower Trio danced. The required increases in tempo during this section should enable the horn-call to be at the same tempo as the Scherzo da capo – Horenstein always achieved this, Volkov not quite.
Graham Mitchell’s grey, vibrato-free double bass solo was an ideal introduction to the strange funeral march and the violins responded with touching gentility to the meltingly beautiful central melody. The power of the Finale was striking in contrast although the two reflective episodes recalling the peace of the opening movement were ideally calm. At the coda the eight horn-players stood to deliver their magnificent melody. Immense loudness was the composer’s intention but absolute precision is required, too, and it was handsomely achieved by the RPO’s impressive musicians who had been notably accurate throughout and well-rewarded Volkov’s perceptive interpretation of this great Symphony.