Kocsis Rachmaninov

Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.100

Zoltán Kocsis (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Alexander Lazarev

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 30 November, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Alexander Lazarev’s arms pushed up and down steadily, with fists clenched. He seemed to be springing on a trampoline. I mention this only because his body movements seemed to accord with his artistic intent. His performances are undeniably physical and vigorous, loud and lively, with a strong, regular beat, inclined towards the unvarying.

His opening to Romeo and Juliet was gripping, though. Often Tchaikovsky’s sombre bassoon and clarinet announcement of imminent tragedy lies dully on the ear. Not here. By pointing the allusion to Orthodox harmony so precisely, Lazarev identified the cloister as source of the tragedy quite unequivocally. Then, doom-laden drum-rolls – and where better to hear such things than at a Philharmonia concert? – led us into a vicious Capulet versus Montague fracas in which lush strings scraped urgently and the brass brazed roughly. Soon came the first statements of love, hesitant yet sure-paced, with Lucy Wakeford’s rippling harp adding grace to burgeoning ardour. After further agitation, including a memorable explosion from the brass, the upper strings surged lusciously as the love theme returned in full, uninhibited romantic abandon. Further, darker agitation ensued, then subsided. The piece closed in a kind of stunned resignation.

For the most part, Lazarev propelled the orchestra along as though he were in charge of a pump: it had to be kept working, regularly and forcefully. He has a keen sense of mood. He pounds up to a climax most energetically – but subtlety, variation and nuance are not his forte. He creates no suspense – symptom of a performance that has agitation and excitement well within its grasp, but not heart.

Zoltán Kocsis is stocky and leonine, with, now, a shock of white hair. He divides his time between solo performance and conducting. His playing style is sturdy and straightforward. His approach is craftsman-like rather than inspirational, matter-of-fact rather than expressive or intense. He plays firmly and robustly, yet softly where appropriate – he changed volume by making an altered weightiness of his hands affect pressure on the keys. Thus, the tone or emotion of his playing hardly altered during a quiet passage, only the volume. In several respects, then, he was Lazarev’s man. From both conductor and soloist, the performance was bare, unsubtle and forthright, and exciting and dynamic at those famous moments of high drama in the first and last movements. Yet I was left unmoved. I felt deprived of the high emotional intensity this splendid concerto can generate – indeed, should generate – if Rachmaninov is to be given his full due.

Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony was performed vigorously and robustly, but somewhat inconsequentially. The work was composed in 1944 and first performed in January 1945, This is something of a ‘war’ symphony, then. The first movement is strident. It sounds quite contrapuntal, with angular lines spewed from some distinctly unexpected instrumental combinations meeting on discords. This performance displayed the music as grim rather than agonised. The scherzo sounded more pastoral than “acerbic” or “sardonic”. The Adagio had a distant melancholy rather than “passionate string themes punctuated by outbursts of grief”. The last movement was jolly enough. Overall, the performance was robust. I admired the playing but I cannot say that the performance spoke to me or that Prokofiev himself spoke.

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