LSO/Xian Zhang Vladimir Feltsman Sally Matthews – Rachmaninov & Poulenc

Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, Op.30

Vladimir Feltsman (piano)

Sally Matthews (soprano)

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Xian Zhang

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 16 June, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Xian ZhangThis programme looked decidedly odd on paper – in the juxtaposition of these particular composers, in the coupling of a piano concerto with a religious choral work, and in the imbalances of these pieces in terms of length and certainly when played in this order – here 42 minutes (Rachmaninov) against 25. Poulenc, first half, then Rachmaninov might have come off a little more satisfyingly, but, even so, an orchestral work would have been needed as an ‘overture’ to the Poulenc (something French and rare – by Vincent d’Indy or Albéric Magnard, say, or, more popularly, Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, that sort of length anyway). As it was, this was a misshapen concert seemingly planned as a ‘think of two composers, any two’ combination that simply didn’t work. Short-measure, too.

Vladimir Feltsman. Photograph: feltsman.comBut quality before quantity every time – and both these performances had much to offer. Vladimir Feltsman, certainly in the UK, is probably better-known to record collectors than to concert-goers – best to be both though! – not least for his Bach and Beethoven tapings as well as, pertinently, individual accounts for Sony of Rachmaninov 3 and Paganini Rhapsody from 1988 with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic. Twenty-plus years on, Feltsman’s view of the D minor Concerto – music that needs to be put to bed for a while to be refreshed (but what wouldn’t we give to hear the composer play this work with Mahler conducting, as took place in New York in January 1910?) – has changed little: fluent, volatile, edgy, compassionately distended, and brought off with plenty of temperament if becoming just a little predictable about halfway through the (here slightly cut?) finale. For all the composure of the seasoned virtuoso that he is, Feltsman’s playing was anything but complacent, ruffling the surface, bringing out dissonance, fluctuating the tempo, but just a little unvaried across the whole. The LSO accompanied sympathetically, Xian Zhang efficient rather than inspiring, some details blurred or reticent, others fully sounded and Romantic, but with not too much interaction between soloist and orchestra beyond them ‘playing together’.

After the interval, Poulenc’s “Gloria” was well-served – good to hear this vital, bittersweet, sometimes-irreverent, even cute setting of the Latin of the Roman Catholic “Gloria in excelsis Deo”, a sacred text in secular dressing albeit not without shrouds, penitence and beatification, and musically journeying from plainsong to street-ditty. Poulenc (1899-1963) seems to have been somewhat discombobulated by the first rehearsal in Boston for the 1961 premiere (Charles Munch conducting) referring to the stand-in soloist as having “a voice like a goat” and the chorus as “worthy” – rather he wished that all its members could sing like Maurice Chevalier.

Sally Mattrhews. Photograph: David Crookes / EMI ClassicsIn this London Symphony Orchestra account a little more Chevalier-like insouciance was needed, and corners could have been more deftly turned – fine stick technique that she has (not surprising given she was Lorin Maazel’s assistant when he was music director of the New York Philharmonic), Xian Zhang’s shaping tends to be a little angular. However, there was weight and clarity in abundance, the latter stressing Poulenc’s indebtedness to Stravinsky, Xian Zhang teasing out Poulenc’s curdling harmonies and off-beat rhythms as well as being sympathetic to the long shadows of “Symphony of Psalms” (also a Boston Symphony commission). The London Symphony Chorus was in fine form singing with élan and generous phrases, the LSO nimble and refined, and if Sally Matthews was a little too ‘operatic’ – ideally a purer tone is required – she lacked nothing in affection for the heart-touching invention that Poulenc affords the soprano. No sign of Capra aegagrus hircus on this occasion!

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