Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23
Francesca da Rimini – Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, Op.32
Pines of Rome
Arcadi Volodos (piano)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 2 December, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
There’s the moment, about two-thirds of the way through the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, when a huge orchestral tutti sets the speed for a furious display of terrifying double-octaves from the pianist. It’s a hairy moment, when the conductor can reasonably show consideration for the soloist without lowering the temperature too much. Well, if anything, Riccardo Chailly put his foot on the pedal, with Arcadi Volodos accepting he challenge with insouciant, dazzling ease. Familiar and taken for granted this concerto may be, but we were being taught by masters to marvel again at the work’s originality and sheer romantic grandeur, with a pianist whose stupendous technique is an artwork in itself.
The combination of Chailly and Volodos wasn’t exactly a clash of titans, but it was certainly a dance of giants in which the question of who is leading was tantalisingly blurred. On the one hand the fabulous, layered sound of the oldest orchestra in the world and its mercurial conductor; on the other, an explosion of virtuosity from a pianist who clearly relished the big, uncompromising gesture yet could engage with chamber-like precision with the detail of this most symphonic of concertos. This was big-scale, generous, sublimely confident music-making – a grand first movement that played up to the Maestoso marking at the head of the score; a deliciously quirky prestissimo interlude in the slow movement that presented us with a vivid parade of Russian grotesquery; and a finale that took the ‘con fuoco’ direction very much to heart – you could almost see the scorch marks – Volodos piling on the tension magnificently to the point of delirium and producing a volume of sound I didn’t think possible from a piano, be it ever so grand. Thrilling!
It’s a puzzle why Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture should be more popular than his other purely orchestral essay in doomed love, Francesca da Rimini, a work that is up there with Manfred, the ‘Pathétique’ Symphony, “Mazeppa” and “Iolanta” as the very best of Tchaikovsky. It was a view reconfirmed by Chailly and the Leipzigers’ excoriating performance, one that made the Wagnerian element more an assimilation than an influence, and which gave the ravishing love music a pathos and intensity to rival that of Tristan and Isolde. How poor Paolo and Francesca clung on to the detritus of their dream of passion.
Compared with Francesca da Rimini, Respighi’s Pines of Rome sounded like a rag-bag of influences, and was suitably and sumptuously presented as a calling-card from a virtuoso orchestrator. Chailly went for the music’s postcard brightness with a will; there was a lovely trumpet solo emerging deep from the catacombs and sounding quite like Gershwin; a recorded nightingale sang on the Janiculum Hill; and the phalanx of brass lined up for the Roman legions stomping fascistically along the Appian Way provided a great wall of sound. The electronic organ sounded synthetic as they always do, but in a work where the finale can never be loud enough, this was loud enough and didn’t distort in the Barbican Hall‘s close acoustic.
What a privilege to hear this great orchestra again, and this visit certainly whets the appetite for the first of its forthcoming residencies in 2011.