London Philharmonic/Stanisław Skrowaczewski – Bruckner & Shostakovich – Garrick Ohlsson plays Brahms

Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15
String Quintet in F – Adagio [arr. Skrowaczewski]
Symphony No.1 in F minor, Op.10

Garrick Ohlsson (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Stanisław Skrowaczewski

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 26 October, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

In the second of two concerts this week with the London Philharmonic, Stanisław Skrowaczewski opened Brahms’s D minor Piano Concerto in spacious and reflective terms, fully the marked Maestoso, paving the way for a seamless ‘of similar mind’ first appearance from Garrick Ohlsson.Garrick OhlssonHis technical ease was impressive, so too the nobility he found in the chorale theme, but the movement as a whole was a little laboured both in tempo and because of emotional reticence – not a young man’s ardour; Brahms was in his early-twenties during the four-year gestation of this work and much troubled by Robert Schumann’s mental decline as well as attracted to Clara, Robert’s wife.

Although one admired the seasoned professionalism of Ohlsson and Skrowaczewski, and their rapport, if the first movement’s grandeur and deliberation is overplayed, then the meditation of the second-movement Adagio is pre-empted; for as solemn and as deeply-felt as it was, the slow movement slightly dragged, although Ohlsson offered some wonderfully ethereal trills towards the close. In a performance that was contained, even the finale was reined-in to a degree, enviably poised and as integrated as it was, greater excitement coming when Ohlsson hit a few wrong notes and seemed taken aback by doing so. The cadenza lacked catharsis, and although the performance as a whole was expressive and cogent – with Ohlsson’s super-virtuoso technique always putting the music first – there was a sense of over-familiarity with this great work. (On another level, Ohlsson’s complete recording for Hyperion of Brahms’s Variations is quite outstanding.)

Skrowaczewski is a distinguished Brucknerian. He is not the first to arrange the Adagio from the String Quintet (like Mozart’s with two violas rather than the two cellos that Schubert employed). Here we had the LPO’s full string complement (which would have also benefitted the Brahms) including eight double basses. Devotedly arranged and played, Bruckner’s yearning melodies and rapt contemplation were beautifully turned, and if the expanse of sound gave the music an unexpected kinship to Grieg (Elegiac Melodies) and (less surprising) Elgar, the conductor’s 1998 transcription made for an affecting novelty.

Stanisław Skrowaczewski. Photograph: Toshiyuki UranoSkrowaczewski was in his element with Shostakovich’s First Symphony, another young man’s work; he was nineteen when he completed it in 1925. Shostakovich 1 is a Skrowaczewski speciality (he has made a notable recording of it with the Hallé) and here left his score of it unopened (the Bruckner was similarly ‘from memory’).

The performance was incisive and tart from the off, Skrowaczewski relishing the music’s daring, irreverence, individuality, dissimilarity and sleights of hand. The scherzo (with its silent-film piano part graced by Catherine Edwards’s demonic fingers) was alternately wild (viciously fast) and icy. By further contrast the Lento was a stream of consciousness, Ian Hardwick (oboe), Kristina Blaumane (cello) and Georgy Vaitchev (violin) adding eloquently to the soul-bearing. Shostakovich 1 is nothing if not theatrical and dramatic; Skrowaczewski made much of the side drums’ linking crescendo into the finale, alive to the movement’s depth, drive and emotion, and building to a shattering and tragic climax, a terrific onslaught from timpanist Simon Carrington – from ffff (pinning you to the wall) to pppp (eerily quiet) – cutting into the petrified silence. From further sentimental reminiscences to an edgy and brazen coda (gong-strokes courtesy of the conductor, I imagine), Skrowaczewski’s coup de grace was the brutal final chord and his motionless stance at its impact: several seconds of stunned silence ensued before applause broke through; ironic given the amount of coughing, chattering and other restless noise-making this performance had endured.

Recently turned 89 (on October 3), Stanisław Skrowaczewski remains alert and vigorous. Long absent from London before this week (something like twenty years!) yet with a full conducting schedule, it would be nice to think that when the LPO announces its 2013-14 Season that a 90th-birthday concert is included, a good opportunity to include Skrowaczewski’s own music, such as the large-scale, large-orchestra Passacaglia Immaginaria.

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