Moscow & St Petersburg (1)

Chopin, orch. Stravinsky
Nocturne in A flat, Op.32/2
Waltz in E flat, Op.18 (Grande valse brillante)
Piano Concerto No.1 in C minor, Op.33
Symphony No.2 in B minor

Boris Berezovsky (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Alexander Lazarev

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 April, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

In the first of two London concerts (with appearances elsewhere) of mostly Russian repertoire, each of which includes relatively unfamiliar repertoire, Nikolai Medtner’s First Piano Concerto (completed in 1918) was given a rare performance. A work in the grand manner, yet one suffused with the inwardness that is a hallmark of this least demonstrative of late-Romantic composer-pianists. Innovative formally, too, in that its unbroken span amalgamates the several movements of an archetypal concerto into a continuous whole. Thus the expository opening section is followed by a developmental – and cumulative – sequence of variations comprising elements of both slow movement and scherzo, leading into the climactic reprise of salient themes and an extended coda that caps the work with a powerful, though largely subdued apotheosis.

An impressively cogent work, then, which can be difficult to articulate over the whole. Not for Boris Berezovsky, who ensured that the music was energised from within, which is important if Medtner’s ideas are to register an expressive force as well as formal ingenuity. Berezovsky is a pianist with virtuosity to spare, but is never unwilling to place it at the service of the music – which, in this instance, means allowing the gravity and circumspection of Medtner’s idiom full reign. The variations were thoughtfully characterised, without detracting from their place in the wider scheme, and with the breadth of the final pages affecting in their eloquence. Alexander Lazarev conducted with a sure sense of where the music was headed, and good to hear the orchestration yielding such luminosity and textural finesse. Berezovsky had enough in reserve for a bravura rendition of ‘Campanella’ (one of the Fairy Tales) as an encore.

The remainder of the concert offered lighter fare – not least the orchestrations of Chopin made by Stravinsky in 1909 at the outset of his association with Ballet Russes. If that of the A flat Nocturne is no more nor less accomplished than the Les Sylphides arrangements into which it fitted, that of the Grande valse brillante – percussion including tuned bells! – is resourceful and indicative that The Firebird was less than a year away, while only a more personalised harmony stands between this and the Tchaikovsky-derived ballet The Fairy’s Kiss (the Divertimento from which features in the second London concert on 27 April).

After the interval, Borodin’s Second Symphony – in an account which, if not without its rough edges, rarely undersold the music’s capacity to enliven. Lazarev clearly enjoyed himself immensely, but such showmanship did not eschew the scherzo’s wistful trio (though the scherzo itself, deft as it was, fell short of Prestissimo), or the long-breathed pathos of the Andante. Passing emphases of phrasing impeded the momentum of the opening Allegro, but the finale was finely judged in its marrying of formal subtlety to unbridled élan. Lazarev went out of his way to bring the audienceas well as orchestra on board, in a performance well suited to a Sunday afternoon’s entertainment.

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