The Isle of the Dead, Op.29
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
Totentanz – Paraphrase on the Dies Irae
Symphony No.7 in D minor, Op.70
Bernd Glemser (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 9 February, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
With the ‘Dies Irae’ plainchant a constant throughout the first half of this programme and Dvořák’s darkest and most louring symphony to follow, Edgar Allan Poe’s line “While from a proud tower in the town Death looks gigantically down” sprang to mind. Minor-key gloom may have been the order of the evening but this was an outstanding concert from first note to last.
It opened with a simply tremendous performance of Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead. Inspired by Böcklin’s painting, Rachmaninov’s tone-poem will never attain the popularity of the Paganini Rhapsody, but it was music close to the composer’s heart and one of only a handful of works which he recorded as a conductor. Its sombre intensity and subdued colours make it a challenge and all-too-often it can sound like twenty or so minutes of undifferentiated gloom. The remarkable aspects of Osmo Vänskä’s reading were his ability to build extreme tension over long spans and the way in which he found variety in the string parts at points where others settle for all-purpose expressiveness; there were some outstanding individual contributions, too – notably John Ryan’s horn solos near the outset emerging seamlessly from the rocking texture: a moment of pure frisson.
The Paganini Rhapsody offered a distinctly unusual take on this familiar work. Bernd Glemser, a cool customer, certainly had the notes under his fingers – he even managed a couple of glances at the audience whilst in the middle of some of the more-demanding filigree passages – but he also played it as a concertante piece, interacting with the orchestra throughout rather than treating it as Rachmaninov’s Fifth Piano Concerto. In place of the usual high-wire act, Glemser and Vänskä gave us delicacy and finesse, occasionally adopting speeds slower than usual. In the famous Variation XVIII this restraint led to a feeling of being emotionally short-changed, yet there was a formidable intelligence at work and in the increasingly dazzling final clutch of variations caution was thrown to the winds, the throwaway ending given with perfect deadpan timing.
Liszt’s Totentanz, also ostensibly inspired by art – take your pick between Orcagna’s fresco of the Last Judgement or Holbein’s series of woodcuts, one of which bears the title “Der Totentanz” – is either an entertaining romp or a piece of purest Hokum. Whichever way one looks at it, Glemser and his accomplices played it as though their lives depended on it, which was entirely appropriate.
Arguably Dvořák’s greatest symphony (Tovey placed it alongside Brahms’s cycle and Schubert’s ‘Great C major’ as the finest since Beethoven), the D minor Seventh was commissioned in 1884 by the London Philharmonic Society at a time when Dvořák felt under pressure to prove that he could go beyond a reliance on overtly Czech material and create a genuine symphonic structure. Like a Samuel Palmer painting it teems with a rich inner life. Vänskä’s conducting combined fire and an acute awareness of that inner detail in equal measure. The first movement’s jagged rhythms leapt off the page, its initial momentum fully sustained until the final thrilling accelerando. Both here and throughout particular attention was paid to the writing for strings and was balanced to a tee – the finale’s expansive tune for the cellos was case in point where we were also able to also hear the violas’ descant. Right through, textures were savoured and dynamics precisely observed with the result that, like viewing a celebrated painting carefully restored, Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony snapped into focus, its interior secrets revealed.