Le tombeau de Couperin
Concerto in C minor for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, Op.35
Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.56 (Scottish)
Denis Matsuev (piano) & Nicholas Thompson (trumpet)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 29 May, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Yuri Temirkanov should have conducted this concert, but, as has been the case for several months now, the Russian maestro cancelled. Semyon Bychkov was a very welcome replacement even if the change of programme seemed unnecessary given that Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony, Debussy’s Faune and Bizet’s delectable Symphony in C are in Bychkov’s repertoire (and he has recorded the latter).
The only work remaining from the original programme was Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No.1 in which trumpeter Nicholas Thompson, despite playing extremely well, was less of a soloist and foil than ideal, sitting as he was between first violins and violas. He didn’t make an entrance with Denis Matsuev, which reflected the imbalance that rather undermined Shostakovich’s flippancy, brooding and irony. Matsuev is a flat-out virtuoso, but not the most searching of musicians. Opportunities to characterise were glossed over, not least in witticisms – in the finale, the “I’m H-A-P-P-Y” bit (if you hear it like that!) went for nothing, and the ‘chase-music’ hilarity of the closing bars was merely a parading of hard-hitting technique. The strings’ eloquence and inwardness in the middle slow movements held the air though.
Matsuev rather surprisingly offered two encores (trumpeter again in the shadows), Liadov’s Musical Snuffbox, which at least showed the pianist has a gentle (if not impromptu-enough) side, and he then made a mockery of ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ (from Grieg’s music for Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt”) in a barnstorming transcription that was an abuse of the music, Matsuev’s showman instincts abhorrent.
The concert had opened with Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, a six-movement musical memorial to friends lost in World War One written for piano, four of which were then flawlessly orchestrated. Bychkov, podium- and baton-less throughout the concert, was more a guide than a conductor, the musicians the epitome of chamber-playing producing marvels of fluid expression and ideal edgy clarity (not least put-upon oboist François Leleux, husband of violinist Lisa Batiashvili, by the way), the infinite sadness of the ‘Menuet’ poetically lilted to its ‘vale of tears’ (my description) coda to close this most-poignant of creations.
Whilst it would have been a delight to have had Bizet’s Symphony in C, Bychkov conjured a superb and absorbing ‘Scottish’ Symphony that opened with poise and impressionism, turned into the exposition with guileless ease (its repeat observed and varied) and, with attaccas precisely timed, brought off a scherzo elfin-like and deft, an Adagio of deep repose, and a finale given with attack, reflected in tranquillity and closing with joy.
Surely the third, ‘bumper’, trumpeter wasn’t needed, and Bychkov rather overdid singling-out sections of the COE to a standing, applause-acknowledging, position (although you can’t blame him hugging leader Lorenza Borrani!) before the encore the players’ score-shuffling had already promised was finally got to; not sure that the slow movement of Mendelssohn’s ‘Reformation’ Symphony (No.5) really works out of context, but it proved a tender envoi of peaceful lyricism. Contentment!