CBSO/Szulc Elisabeth Leonskaja

Piano Concerto No.2 in G, Op.44
Symphony No.4 in E flat (Romantic)

Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Radoslaw Szulc

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 20 February, 2007
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

This was a fine example of how to rescue an ambitious programme when both the soloist and the conductor pull out at short notice. Thus the indisposition of Jaap van Zweden brought Radoslaw Szulc to the podium for a concert in which he had initially been designated as the orchestra’s leader, while the absence of Boris Berezovsky “due to scheduling difficulties” provided a welcome opportunity to hear Elisabeth Leonskaja in a composer with whom – whether in a recital or with orchestra – she has often been at her best.

That Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto has never enjoyed the popularity of its predecessor is surely less to do with the quality of its material than with its avoidance of conflict. Thus the opening Allegro, for all the attractiveness of its themes and the solidity of its design, sees relatively little interplay between soloist and orchestra over its 20-minute course; the latter being often limited to interludes, notably in a cadenza encompassing the whole of the development. Leonskaja dispatched this with barely a hint of technical strain, and elsewhere galvanised what seemed a slightly inhibited orchestral response. The Andante unfolded effortlessly, with Szulc pacing the movement so that its substantial contributions from violin and cello (here the admirable Robert Heard and Ulrich Heinen) were given expressive space without overwhelming the piano in this veritable ‘triple concerto’. If the finale lacked a degree of élan, Leonskaja’s dexterity and the energy of the CBSO’s playing capped the performance in scintillating fashion. Leonskaja remains among the most musical of pianists, and she brought just the right poetic reticence to Schubert’s G flat Impromptu that served as an encore.

Although his conducting career is still in its early stages, Radoslaw Szulc comes with the imprimatur of such figures as Riccardo Muti and Sir Colin Davis. He amply confirmed his credentials in Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony – heard in its definitive 1878-80 version, without subsequent amendments or extraneous timpani entries.

Its exposition paced securely, the first movement then caught fire with a development that combined motivic purposefulness and expressive grandeur in a cumulative sweep of intensity. Nor did Szulc go awry in a powerfully-wrought but never overbearing coda. Even finer was the intermezzo-like second movement – its ethereal processional rendered with finesse, and its wide dynamic range scrupulously adhered to so that the climax made the necessary impact.

Other conductors have brought out the hunting associations of the scherzo more palpably, but Szulc’s keen incisiveness was never in doubt, and he captured the trio’s wistful poise to perfection. Mindful of its tendency to sprawl, at least in its later stages, he Adopted a relatively brisk tempo for the finale – driving onward to the initial peroration and keeping the gauche charm of the second theme on a tight rein. The development surged forward, and Szulc negotiated the transition into the reprise with consummate skill, even if he could not quite keep the latter from fragmenting. Finely prepared, the coda fulfilled its role as a breathtaking apotheosis to an imperfect but still engrossing design.

The orchestra gave of something approaching its best throughout – not least principal horn Elspeth Dutch, whose passing flaws were outweighed by her sensitivity to the sound Bruckner draws from the instrument and which underlies this symphony’s persona. Ultimately, however, it was Szulc’s night. Hopefully this unexpected debut will lead to further such engagements: many conducting reputations have, after all, been made at short notice – though not necessarily by those meant to be at the leader’s Desk on the same night!

  • Concert played again on February 21
  • CBSO

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