Beethoven & Shostakovich from the London Philharmonic Orchestra 

Beethoven
Overture, The Creatures of Prometheus, Op.43
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat major, Op.19
Shostakovich
Symphony No.8 in C minor, Op.65

Jonathan Biss (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Karina Canellakis


Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: 28 October, 2023
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

This was one of those concerts that showcased the versatility of the London Philharmonic Orchestra in historically aware performance and contemporary practice. Perhaps it is a trifle extravagant to deploy period trumpets and timpani for the five minutes it takes to zip through the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, but from the first explosive chord generated by Karina Canellakis, this was a tension-filled account; strings (with minimum vibrato) and agile woodwind all played with sufficient electricity to carry us through the stage reset for Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto.

Exit trumpets and timpani but leaving period manners for this chronologically first of Beethoven’s piano concertos (printed as his second) to shape a performance of Mozartian grace and Haydnesque wit. Soloist Jonathan Biss brought considerable refinement to the work, with a pianism characterised by clarity of articulation and nicely differentiated dynamics. There was restraint too; his left hand underpinning the right with a weight that was supportive rather than intrusive, providing just enough foundation yet deliberately understated. Excitement derived from faultless passage work and subtlety of expression with phrases sometimes thrown off as little asides. He brought serenity to the Adagio with crystalline tone emanating from the softest touch, soloist and orchestra in perfect accord. The Rondo flew by with an irrepressible buoyancy, Biss now whisking up candyfloss, the LPO enjoying every moment. As an encore Biss gave the central movement of Beethoven’s ‘Pathétique’ Sonata, Op. 13.

Shostakovich’s war-time symphony (premiered in 1943 with the Siege of Leningrad a continuing memory) was given an account of sweeping drama, Canellakis fully alert to the work’s uncompromising tragedy. It’s a work open to ambiguity, particularly in the lengthy first movement and, here, with subtle shifts of tone Canellakis drew out hints of resignation or even tenderness from the initial entry of the first violins. Thereafter, the movement built inexorably to its brutal brass and percussion dominated climax, its potency finding emotional release in Sue Böhling’s consoling cor anglaisAfter such fury and sullen acquiescence, there was no shortage of astringency in the first of the two scherzos – impish piccolo and ripe bassoons especially sardonic – with violas feverishly determined in the second and culminating in a floor shaking eruption to signal the Largo’s ‘Siberian wastes’. From its strange eeriness emerged the wintery sun of the closingAllegretto and the hard-won transformation to C major with its hint of fragile hope. In short, Canellakis fashioned an emotionally charged performance and drew out the best from the LPO which, collectively and individually, was on blistering form.

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