Jeu de cartes
Concerto for Two Pianos [London Philharmonic Orchestra co-commission: world premiere]
Symphony No.3 in A-minor, Op.44
Katia & Marielle Labèque (pianos)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 13 April, 2018
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Bryce Dessner wrote his Concerto for Two Pianos for Katia & Marielle Labèque last year. Although it has a few moments of atmosphere and suggestiveness it relies too heavily on repetition and the over-use of percussion (enough for six players, including timpani) so that the twenty-odd minutes it took to perform, excellently it must be said, seemed longer; it’s one of those inoffensive if anonymous pieces that fails to engage in any way and offers no reason to return to it.
Stravinsky deals a far more appealing hand in Jeu de cartes, completed in 1936 for choreography by George Balanchine. There have been more scintillating accounts than this (Charles Munch’s recording, for example), but John Storgårds poker-faced reading, rather too deliberate at times, nevertheless offered numerous rewards, not least clarity without queering characterisation – flirtatious flute, buffooning bassoon – and if more zest was needed at times, Stravinsky’s genius for pastiche, his ability to tease and be laconic (such as the allusion to The Barber of Seville Overture) all bubbled infectiously, the LPO negotiating the tricky rhythms with aplomb. Maybe Storgårds was a little portentous with the ritornello that opens and divides the scenes, but it was arresting, and harmonically curdled come the denouement, and across the whole Storgårds made sure all was connected.
Which is more than he managed in the Symphony. What a great piece No.3 is (my desert-island Rachmaninov), a masterpiece in every particular, also 1936, but on this occasion it was rather less so. The mysterious introduction made no promises, the exposition treaded carefully, and did so again with the repeat (usually welcome but here superfluous), and from here the volatility of the development was subdued, just occasionally flaring if hardly on full flame and the tinderbox of complex passions that it is; a dogged traversal that suggested Rachmaninov as past his prime, and he was anything but. There were some fine moments at the beginning of the slow movement, though, such as Mark Vines’s magically floated horn solo, Juliette Bausor’s limpid flute contribution and Kevin Lin’s rich violin-playing; but the middle section needed greater animation and take-off than this. As for the Finale, it emerged in fits and starts, some passages singled out for indulgence, and although the fugue had momentum and the coda some fire – suggesting what might have been – this was a reading that did this magnificent piece a disservice, even if the LPO did Storgårds’s bidding in terms of dynamics and lucidity … but if the conductor’s tempos mostly plod and he sets the emotional voltage too low…