CBSO/Oramo – 31 October

Le nozze di Figaro – Overture
Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, Op.30
Symphony No.1 in B flat minor

Alexander Korsantiya (piano)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 31 October, 2002
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

A few seconds into the Figaro overture, a sweet was audibly unwrapped; a few minutes into the Rachmaninov more confectionery was unveiled from elsewhere. A persistent high whistle throughout – particularly noticeable in the Walton – was presumably someone’s hearing aid. A troupe of people clumped out before Walton’s finale, the same lot that applauded after the first movement. A very distinct watch-bleep intruded at 3 and 4 o’clock – this was a matinee concert – which didn’t seem to worry either the timepiece’s owner or his neighbours. What’s to be done? It’s no comfort to know that London is not alone with such audience behaviour. The quiet beginning of the Walton was subsumed in rustle, which one brave person attempted to shush. András Schiff, Solti and Masur have all stopped concerts due to ’crowd trouble’: I wish more musicians would do the same.

Coming back to Symphony Hall after nearly a year, I noted how resonant Symphony Hall sounds: the double basses boomed and textures coagulated in the most complex passages. Violins sounded a little distant, yet woodwind was always wonderfully forward and clear. Maybe prolonged exposure to the ’new’ Barbican now makes for unfavourable comparisons.

Gil Shaham should have played Korngold’s Violin Concerto. He withdrew for “personal reasons” allowing Alexander Korsantiya an unexpected opportunity – one he literally grabbed with both hands. In fact he stole the show.

The Walton didn’t gel across its four movements. The first was initially tensionless and although Oramo paid great attention to decoration – trills and the like – his was an arm’s length approach, one well organised but lacking the accumulation that’s crucial in this music. The ’Presto, con malizia’ scherzo was tepid with surprisingly restrained timpani. The tempo, although a tad under, wouldn’t have mattered if there had been more spite; the simpering build-up to the coda was curious. The ’Andante con malincolia’, paced to the 11 minutes that most conductors take, was beautifully played. If it was more chaste than melancholic, there was an appealing inner expression. The ’Finale’ certainly caught fire. Oramo, consciously or not, rather underlined that Walton wrote it sometime after the other movements; it might have blazed but didn’t relate. Hopefully Oramo will return to this masterpiece in seasons to come. There was no doubting the CBSO’s commitment (a few rough edges aside) or the quality solo playing – bassoon, viola, flute and trumpet all impressive.

Following an effervescent Figaro overture, given with wind/string equality and a tempo allowing filigree detail time to breathe, Alexander Korsantiya (born in Tbilisi, Georgia and – guess – in his early ’thirties) made the Rachmaninov his own – for an expansive 50 minutes. The opening folk-tune idea could not have been more reflective or poetic, serene even; nor could Korsantiya have played it quieter, a couple of notes on the threshold of audibility. When this opening returns twice more, it did so in exactly the same way; a sort of idée fixe. The first movement, all twenty minutes of it, was never indulged – this was from within, a real identification with the music’s soul; a church-like hush hovered over the most intimate sections when Korsantiya pared dynamics to a whisper.

Whether Oramo agreed or not with the soloist, no disparities were evident. Indeed the CBSO offered a tonal mix of seduction and clarity, Oramo a model of generosity, many a time getting his orchestra to play even quieter to allow Korsantiya a pianissimo fancy (rather than whim), and securing lucid detail and very expressive playing that was always sympathetic to him.

Korsantiya’s range from rippling delicacy (the scherzando section of the ’Adagio’) to huge power (the first movement cadenza, the longer and more difficult of the two Rachmaninov wrote) suggested an amalgamation of Lazar Berman’s premeditation, Richter’s tell-it-like-it-is confrontation and Gilels’s warmth, fantasy and introspection. Korsantiya swallowed whole the arpeggios that open the ’Finale’, brought out dissonance in the first movement and was then strangely coy with the barbed first entry in the (real!) slow movement. His militaristic way with the ’Finale’ was very Richter-ish (not that he played this work). The cutting loose towards the end to a ’normal’ tempo did perhaps unbalance things, although something had to give eventually; here the effect was to relieve the lugubrious burden that had been, not inappropriately, omnipresent until then.

There will be those who won’t have liked Korsantiya’s personal way – it wasn’t, after all, a library-choice CD played live; nor was it as bizarre or as attention-seeking as Pogorelich’s way with the Second Concerto, which was (rightly) booed in London; Korsantiya brought informed cheers. His raking and teasing of the music might be controversial, yet rarely unconvincing. An interpretation of extremes and contradictions, Rachmaninov’s part writing was so deliciously transparent as to suggest Korsantiya’s Bach as potentially something special. I hope to hear him again soon.

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