Philharmonia All Change – 3 October

Ruslan and Ludmilla – Overture
Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.16
Mussorgsky orch. Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition

Alexander Melnikov (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Tugan Sokhiev

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 3 October, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

When conductor Emmanuel Krivine dropped out through illness, Evgeny Kissin opted to withdraw. Cries of “shame!” resounded in the Festival Hall to this announcement. In any case, as part of the ’new generation’ take-over of this concert, Alexander Melnikov was as percussive, hard-toned and as external as Kissin might have been. It’s a sign of the times that Tugan Sokhiev, born 1977, already heads three musical organisations, including Welsh National Opera.

The Glinka overture (replacing Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso) was mobile and initially exhilarating before being driven in automatic. His accompaniment for Melnikov was well organised if not always well balanced: the trombones and trumpets were consistently too loud and masked other detail. Melnikov played this work as he did a year ago – somewhat brittle with a lack of colour and fleet if blurred fingerwork; the first movement cadenza arrived rather than growing organically (John Lill’s speciality) and Melnikov emphasised its cacophony; his technique seemed a tad challenged when covering a wide compass in split seconds. As before he seemed outside of the piece, only truly engaged with the folksong episode in the ’Finale’. Yet, in his encore, a Scriabin Prelude, Melnikov touched and shaped to shimmering effect and left a memorable impression.

Pictures proved very enjoyable – from stately opening to garish conclusion. Sokhiev relishes primary colour; brass (again) and percussion were to the fore. Such presentation to my mind goes against the culture (in every sense) of the Philharmonia Orchestra – ear-splitting trombones and trumpets cheapen the brew and denominate downwards the listening experience. Do the musicians sitting directly in front of the brass have a view on this, I wonder?

Yet, there was much that impressed and was sensitively played. Sokhiev has an ability to obtain colourful and vital playing; dynamic shading and tonal variety constantly caught the ear, and his suspension of slower music was hypnotic. Especially compelling was ’The Old Castle’ given with myriad subtleties and a superb sax solo from Kyle Horsch. And what word do I use for Mark David’s portrayal of Schmuyle (’Goldenberg and Schmuyle’)? This was trumpet playing of rare distinction – not only virtuosity of the ’shivering’ notes but a range of dynamics that was breathtaking.

Sokhiev did not characterise Pictures in onomatopoeic terms but brought a sense of theatre; his ability to establish, sustain and build tension is to be reckoned with, and ably demonstrated in another encore, the ’Pas de deux’ from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, given with singing lines and sweeping panache.

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