Scherzo fantastique, Op.25
Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor, Op.21
Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95 (From the New World)
Evgeny Kissin (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 6 October, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
With ‘From the New World’ on the programme, and the presence of Evgeny Kissin in Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto, one of the works with which he first burst on the musical world at the age of 12, a full house was guaranteed.
Dvořák’s son-in-law, Josef Suk’s substantial Scherzo fantastique sees the light of day all too infrequently. It was composed in 1903 shortly before the composer suffered the devastating loss of his 26-year-old wife and his famous father-in-law, losses which led on to the outpouring of grief which is the Asrael Symphony. Outwardly the most genial of works, Scherzo fantastique is blessed with a recurring cello tune which lodges in the mind like the opening of Kalinnikov’s First Symphony, but there is also a sense of menace lurking just below the surface almost as though Suk had a premonition of what was to come, the music’s character not unlike a latter day Danse macabre. Neeme Järvi secured some extremely fine playing, notably in the little duet for flute and clarinet and from the cello section throughout, but was it not all a little too well-mannered? The pussyfooting delicacy was undoubtedly welcome but this is music which could have lived a little more dangerously.
Nobody could accuse Kissin of understatement in the more delicate of Chopin’s two concertos. Järvi started the opening ritornellos quickly and got quicker, even risking sounding perfunctory, but when Kissin entered at his most imperious the music immediately became far more expansive. Frequently treated as gently reflective, there was a virile power and an unexpected volatility to Kissin’s reading. Järvi stuck to him like glue. In Kissin’s hands the moonlit Largo was not so much a veiled and reflective nocturne as evoking the brilliance of a full moon, rather like one of Samuel Palmer’s landscapes where the wheat-sheafs are visible in minute detail. For all its controlled splendour there was a prevailing forcefulness to Kissin’s playing. It was as though he has such complete command of the instrument that, from one second to the next, he can invest each bar with such power and significance as to leave little room for those brief flurries of genuine climax to register fully. However, to compensate there were also many moments of magic, notably the breathless backwash to the Largo’s climax with the most sensitive bassoon solo and the rhythmic flexibility with which the finale’s Mazurka-like main theme was treated on its various reappearances Kissin offered a substantial encore – Chopin’s B minor Scherzo. There was a moment towards the close of the sostenuto central section where the music simply ignited, powering onward to the Scherzo’s-music sotto voce reprise. The conclusion was veritably heroic and cued an inevitable but fully-merited standing ovation.
‘From the New World’ may be the most familiar of symphonies but on this occasion it received a performance so fresh as to renew all the love one felt on first hearing it. It was quite superbly played from first note to last, Järvi’s ability to obtain precisely what he wanted with minimum fuss eliciting the best possible response from the LPO. It was a splendidly straightforward performance, constantly forward-moving, generating tremendous momentum yet seamlessly avoiding all the interpretative pitfalls which can so easily bedevil this work. Like those Palmer paintings there was also a teeming inner life, the score’s parts and balances handled with much cunning, as were the music’s joins. Symptomatic of this was Järvi’s handling of the ‘Largo’ – in Dvořák’s first sketch it is marked Andante and Järvi possibly had this in mind with his flowing tempo; more importantly Sue Bohling’s cor anglais solo was exquisitely coloured-in when joined by clarinet and, later, bassoon: the sort of detail which seldom registers in more routine performances.