Mussorgsky, orch. Rimsky-Korsakov
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Ulf [LSO/UBS Sound Adventures commission: World premiere]
Romeo and Juliet, Op.64 [excerpts]
Hélène Grimaud (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter
Reviewed: 4 May, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
The prelude to Mussorgsky’s opera evokes dawn emerging over the Moscow River. Church bells peal and then fall silent. Nature continues to move quietly into daybreak. Unforgettably, the opening catches the hushed stillness of early morning light and the serene clarity of sound carrying across water. I have a vivid memory of the BBCSO playing this under Leonard Slatkin at the Proms a few years ago.
The LSO’s opening – quiet and very, very careful – lacked atmosphere. Matters improved as the orchestra gained confidence. The folk-like melody gained strength; the bells clanged stridently. The rapt hush as the piece ended was unforgettable. If only the opening had been the same!
The Beethoven carried the same story. The first movement – the trickiest to interpret – did not impress. Beethoven’s writing is mercurial – intimate, proud, declamatory, spirited, thrusting, sinewy and witty. From both soloist and orchestra, the playing was skilful – and there was quiet poetry from Hélène Grimaud. Overall, however, the performance was tentative. Of Beethoven’s swagger, there was no sign. The orchestra sounded under-rehearsed. Playing as if in retreat, it only accompanied – it did not partner. Grimaud, alas, played with less emotional certainty than usual, sounding unsettled.
In the slow movement, the orchestra suddenly became loud and strong – a little too much so. Nevertheless, such a positive approach was welcome relief. Grimaud responded immaculately – ever-gaining in sensitivity, simplicity and serenity. She gave the last few bars the same rapt shimmering sense of eternity that characterised Pietro Scarpini’s live performance with Furtwängler in the early 1950s. The last movement made light-hearted headway.
Joe Cutler is Head of Composition at Birmingham Conservatoire. His Ulf is the fourth in a series of LSO and UBS commissions, and was conducted by Paul Watkins. I read that Ulf “finds solutions to its own musical contradictions – stasis versus flux, sound versus silence”. It is “distinctly Cutler”. It was less appealing to listen to. A sequence of sectors each evoked a style of middlebrow music, hardly-changing over 60 years. On to these, Cutler has arbitrarily imposed various rackets – each with its own astringent, discordant din. These were repeated incessantly, with the occasional unmemorable, minute modification. Some dins were rhythmic; others were lumpish and blocked. Finally, like Vaughan Williams on a do-it-by-numbers day, the strings mused in pastoral fashion, accompanied by a sustained single note.
The LSO played the Romeo and Juliet selections with great vigour, pinpointing the music’s flamboyant originality, time and again; this was were the rehearsal time went. Where individual instruments were highlighted, Prokofiev came across as a strikingly effective colourist. As usual, the more heavily orchestrated sections tended to sound muddy – but energy carried the performers through.
- Yuri Temirkanov conducts the LSO on Sunday 7 May at 7.30 – Prokofiev and Mahler