Bacchus et Ariane – Suite No.1
Piano Concerto No.3 in C, Op.26
Symphony No.6 in E flat minor, Op.111
Evgeny Kissin (piano)
Reviewed by: Graham Rogers
Reviewed: 24 January, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
The evening got off to an exuberant start as, picking up where last week’s concert left off, we were transported back to mythical ancient Greece with Roussel’s ballet Bacchus et Ariane. The colourful and atmospheric score received a vibrant performance under the evidently enthused Ashkenazy, the orchestra on sparkling form. The strings handled the rich romantic sweeps gloriously, and were rhythmically taut and driven in the contrasting Rite of Spring-inspired chugging passages. The riot of wind and brass solos were all dispatched with aplomb (a couple of unfortunate high trumpet cracks notwithstanding).
Roussel’s 1931 score proved a perfect prelude to Prokofiev’s uplifting Third Piano Concerto. Begun in 1916, around the same time as the ‘Classical’ Symphony, the concerto was not completed until 1921, during Prokofiev’s short-lived move to America. The glittering work has a definite whiff of the ballet in its playful brilliance and pungent earthiness. Evgeny Kissin’s mesmerising performance was astonishing; but conductor, orchestra and soloist worked terrifically as a team to bring a great sense of homogeneity to Prokofiev’s quirky score. The phenomenally fleet playing of the violins perfectly matched Kissin’s ebullience in the jaw-dropping moto perpetuo passages; there was an audible gasp from the audience as the wound-up tension was finally released at the end of the opening Allegro. Kissin brought out the undeniable flavour of Rachmaninov in the central Theme and Variations. Delicate egg-shell dancing passages contrasted with the muscular, overarching line brought to the luscious chromatically winding theme. Full orchestral passages were imbued with rich, churning romanticism. Kissin continued to dazzle in the glittering finale – a commanding, supremely confident performance, followed by more Prokofiev as an encore, dispatched with delightful lightness of touch and obvious joy.
A powerful sense of post-war gloom descended after the interval. Prokofiev’s seldom performed Sixth Symphony was written in the aftermath of the Second World War, and is inescapably imbued with the appalling suffering endured by Russians during those grim years. The music is weighty and oppressive, the symphony opening with a long, unremittingly bleak melody that seems to rise directly from the muted cries of a war-torn people. Ashkenazy clearly has a great affinity for this score, deftly pointing the gritty, angular themes with a sense of calm, understated menace throughout. Harsh, clashing sonorities underpinned by a superbly menacing tuba, relaxed into a beautifully poised conclusion to the central Largo. Youthful vigour and joy returned at the start of the finale, before giving way to a terrifying tutti topped with wailing trumpets and a wild blaze of trombones led to a searing climax of harrowing proportions. I left the hall intensely moved, yet elated. Ashkenzay is a great communicator of this repertoire, and the responsive Philharmonia Orchestra was on top form. A very special evening.