A packed audience was perhaps guaranteed for a Rachmaninov concert on Valentine’s Day – so canny marketing from the London Philharmonic, the concert also in its JTI Series on Friday (17th) and at Brighton Dome the following day.
Quality was not sacrificed for what might potentially have been a marketing gimmick. Having Neeme Järvi at the helm helped – and he’s already done a commanding performance of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony (along with Dvořák sacred works and much else besides) with the London Philharmonic. Here he turned his attention to the Second Symphony, the Second Piano Concerto opening the concert. Dapper and diminutive, Boris Giltburg opened with arpeggiated semibreves (a rather unusual effect) and continued to mint afresh what could be regarded as an all-too-often heard warhorse. Järvi accompanied with great aplomb.
Curious that the evening opened with the concerto, especially as the first half included a five-minute piece with a rather convoluted history – Rachmaninov’s piano transcription of Fritz Kreisler’s Liebesleid (Love’s sorrow) as recently arranged for piano, violin and orchestra by Russian-born conductor Arkady Leytush. Even though we were told this was the European premiere there was no information where the first performance had been (I’ve checked – 16 October 2010 in New York’s Cathedral of St John the Devine, Leytush conducting the Brooklyn Philharmonic) or even when the orchestration had been done. It’s pleasant enough, with alternating sections for solo piano, and for solo violin and full orchestra (harp, cor anglais and extra percussion added to the concerto’s personnel), but I’m not convinced it adds much to Rachmaninov’s transcription, and it would have been better as an opener. Giltburg offered an encore, another Rachmaninov transcription. Polka de W. R. (in honour of his father Wassili).
The meat of the concert came in the second half, a resounding rendering of the Second Symphony, played complete save for the first-movement exposition repeat. With great and characterful playing, the London Philharmonic followed Järvi’s direction in every surge of the music, seemingly effortlessly accommodating the exquisite slow movement with Robert Hill’s silky clarinet a high-spot as equally as the rumbustious scherzo and finale. It got a tremendous reception – deservedly so. Järvi also had an encore up his sleeve – a gently moulded performance of Vocalise.
I’m left with one final thought – how appropriate is Rachmaninov for Valentine’s Day? Gavin Plumley in his programme notes referenced David Lean’s use of the Second Piano Concerto in Brief Encounter – but that’s not exactly the ‘happy’ romance looked for on Valentine’s Day, and Rachmaninov (the LPO uses Rachmaninoff) suffused his music more with nostalgia (and sometimes rather deadly emotions) than romance. But it didn’t seem to matter on the night.