Piano Concerto No.2 in A Rachmaninov
Symphony No.1 in D minor, Op.13
London Schools Symphony Orchestra
Tamás Vásáry (piano)
Monday, January 10, 2005 Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
The London Schools Symphony Orchestra has given regular concerts at the Barbican for some years always of a dependable standard, though it undoubtedly makes a difference to have a musician of the highest calibre at the helm. Such is Tamás Vásáry among the leading concert pianists of the 1960s and '70s, and increasingly familiar as a conductor through his eight years with the Bournemouth Sinfonietta and as Music Director of the Budapest Symphony Orchestra during this last decade.
Vásáry must have often directed the Mozart and Beethoven concertos from the keyboard though the Liszt concertos can seldom, if ever, have been presented such. What resulted was a lively and involving rendition, which, if hardly free of tentative entries, had a cohesion that may even have been encouraged by the absence of a maestro. The way Liszt builds his single movement through the varied repetition of salient themes was more than usually apparent, and if those themes are not of the subtlest, the purposefulness with which they are integrated into the overall design was never in doubt. Vásáry paid tribute to the orchestra and as if his continued keyboard prowess needed extra confirmation provided encores in the guise of Mendelssohn's Rondo Capriccioso, deftly articulated, and Liszt's La campanella study its overtly Paganinian inspiration heard to scintillating effect.
Vásáry's recorded cycle of Rachmaninovs piano concertos demonstrated a thoughtful approach to this composer, and his account of the First Symphony (conducted from memory) evinced an equal rapport. Nor was the performance at all reigned in: indeed, the forcefulness of expression brought to
the outer movements suggested a conductor more than usually conscious of the status of the work which, after its disastrous 1897 premiere, remained unheard until after Rachmaninov's death and holds a precarious place in the repertoire even today. This is a young man's music, with certain formal miscalculations and an overt reliance on rhetoric, but possessed of a communicative intensity that the subsequent two symphonies, for all their melodic appeal and instrumental resource, fail to equal.
Vásáry made the most of the scherzo's atmospheric understatement and the Larghetto's chaste lyricism, and if string entries could have been more unanimous in the latter, the elaborate textures in the complex developmental fantasy at the centre of the finale were vividly delineated. The outcome was a performance to remind one what a near-masterpiece the work is, especially when conducted with this degree of conviction. Vásáry remained sufficiently energised to return for a thunderous Hungarian March from Berlioz's La damnation de Faust: easy to believe that the piece almost kick-started a revolution when heard in Pest during the early 1840s. No likelihood of that happening here, but the response accorded conductor and orchestra set the seal on an excellent evening's music-making.