Philharmonia Orchestra/Dudamel Janine Jansen

Theme with Variations in D minor
Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op.35 – Book II
Pavane pour une infante défunte
Gaspard de la nuit – Ondine
Petrushka – Three movements [transcribed by the composer]

Alexander Karpeyev (piano)

La gazza ladra – Overture
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Symphony No.7 in D minor, Op.70

Janine Jansen (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Gustavo Dudamel


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 February, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Let’s be clear on one thing: there was an abundance of talent on offer here. How that talent was used is another matter.

At 6 o’clock as a free pre-concert recital, Alexander Karpeyev – studying at the Guildhall School and here giving an “Award-winner Recital” as part of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Martin Musical Scholarship Fund – gave a 55-minute programme that introduced a pianist with athletic fingers, an ability to shape phrases without distorting the line, and a sensitivity that bodes well. That said he has a tendency to lose poise at the most-heated moments.

The opening of Brahms’s Theme with Variations (transcribed from the String Sextet, Opus 18) needed a little more breadth, and colour, to underline the nobility of the Theme. Karpeyev was overly resolute, although, later, he did find a still-centre of reflection that was very affecting. The work closes quietly – applause intruded into the pedal-held final chord: had Karpeyev not lifted his arms aloft while keeping his foot down, this may not have happened. The same composer’s Paganini Variations – we heard Book II – on the solo violin tune that has spawned so many musical commentaries. Some of Karpeyev’s leggiero playing was a delight and his shaping of the eloquent, slower Variations was heartfelt; slightly less impressive was his combative approach to those sections that demand transcendental virtuosity in which one was too aware of him taking on a challenge – and winning – but distracting away from the music with his technical ability.

That technique was though under strain in the Petrushka transcription; the composer’s piano version is cruelly difficult and Karpeyev certainly didn’t shy away from it – but he did miss some notes and tended to push through the drama (Stravinsky also demands precision) and sometimes confused ornamentation for melody. In between Brahms and Stravinsky came Ravel – a slightly too remote Pavane (although Karpeyev was alive to the dissonance that lies within the piece) and was unwise to divorce ‘Ondine’ (which lacked ‘danger’ here) from its two companion pieces. He could have played Jeux d’eau. A Scarlatti sonata, cut in half by dint of no repeats being played, was offered as an encore.

In the evening concert, the much-touted Gustavo Dudamel and Janine Jansen came together. The overture to Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie” was given a full-orchestra account that was overloud (it’s amazing how much sound one trombone can make!), noisily percussive, edgy, piercing and totally devoid of humour. Dudamel hammered the music home in a manner that was repellent. There were dynamic contrasts, arguably too contrived, and there were imaginative touches (that were still imaginative even if one questioned them) – but Rossini was the loser. The five percussionists could now go home!

From Janine Jansen one can expect passionately committed and virtuoso playing. But her over-wrought approach, which tried to squeeze every drop of juice and then some more out of the music, went against the grain of this particular concerto; tempo contrasts were exaggerated. A deft and graceful response from the Philharmonia Orchestra aside, this reading nullified Mendelssohn’s spontaneous flow: indulgent in the Andante and too quick in the finale, which just needed a little more time to express itself; here flautist William Bennett, a highly-experienced figure (and presumably a last-minute replacement for the listed Paul Edmund-Davies) traced Jansen with guile!

The first movement of Dvořák’s great D minor Symphony also confounded the promise that has been placed on Dudamel’s shoulders; in the opening bars an exaggerated ‘lurch’ from the cellos boded ill, and the movement as a whole was pushed along (as some rather pressured woodwind-playing demonstrated) and there was general lack of co-ordination and a picking out of detail that tended to be more tongue-poking rather than illuminating.

Then a miracle happened! The opening of the Poco adagio really seemed to come from inside the music – very expressive and sotto voce, the composer’s volatility and humanity bursting forth here and in the dance-measures of the scherzo. Dudamel brought off a perfectly timed attacca into the finale which rolled forth with drama and the glorious second subject was beautifully shaped and proportioned. The Slavic fervour missing from the opening movement was now found. Dudamel’s youthful enthusiasm became infectious and left the most positive of impressions.

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