The Firebird Suite 
Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.22
Symphonic Dances, Op.45
Simon Trpčeski (piano)
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: 26 June, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
Stravinsky’s first ballet, dating from 1910, has become a fairly regular feature nowadays in the full splendour of the complete version with its “wastefully large” orchestration (the composer’s description).
The 1919 suite – the second of three that Stravinsky made – reduces the orchestra considerably and yet the music can sound more voluptuous and colourful than it did in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s rendition under Alexander Lazarev. He evoked a suitably dark sound at the start, with the effect of unison bowed and pizzicato double basses being especially clear, but there was little sense of mystery or atmosphere. The subsequent flecks from wind and muted trumpets were rather awkward and imprecise; this Firebird was a decidedly earthbound creature whose dance lacked sparkle and grace. The lovely Round Dance was restrained, with an expressive solo oboe, but there should be more emotion from the strings at the climax. Kaschei’s Infernal Dance was taken at a steady pace – perhaps too much so for Stravinsky’s metronome mark, yet which allowed for pointed rhythms to be clearly articulated as the music built to a splashy climax. One felt a lack of warmth in the Berceuse; the solo bassoon was superb, however, as was the hushed tremolando string playing that ushered in the finale. A pity that the horn solo was too loud for the ’piano’ marking.
Simon Trpčeski was making his debut with the Philharmonia. His playing was loudly applauded. Indeed, technically, it was virtually flawless – dazzling fingerwork, virtuoso passages dashed off with ease, a recording producer’s dream. But there was not a trace of soul, poetry or affection in Trpčeski’s manufactured rendition. It is though difficult to make much of this concerto with its silly tunes and lack of development – yet what there is could have been given with more flair and charm, by soloist and conductor alike. There was little attempt to characterise the various shifts of mood and changes of expression. The opening was imposing, although a much weightier piano tone is needed, and the scherzo was deftly given. The finale was fleet-footed, but it all seemed for little purpose and the orchestral interjections were, frankly, perfunctory.
Rapturously received, Trpčeski returned to play, I believe, a Bach prelude arranged by Siloti and, mercifully, gave evidence of some sensitivity, his technique put to musical use and touchingly so.
The Symphonic Dances turned out to be Rachmaninov’s last work and its success in performance depends to a large extent on a fine balance between the two elements inherent in the piece’s title. Lazarev seemed to favour the balletic approach which is all very well but the structure suffered as a result, with the music – particularly the third movement – sounding much more episodic than it ought. There was more than a whiff of Prokofiev in the point and piquancy of Lazarev’s reading of the first movement, to which the Philharmonia responded with a will, but more import would not have come amiss. The woodwind-dominated central section was well shaped, with solo saxophone and cor anglais phrasing expressively. The second movement – a rather uneasy waltz – was decidedly leaden at too slow a pace. The brass interjections were arresting, though whether they should dominate everything else is a debatable point. They certainly did in the finale, which was brash and superficially exciting. There was, however, a welcome sense of animation and the Philharmonia’s collective showmanship was invigorating. These Symphonic Dances are more than choreographic moments stitched together and this performance ultimately failed to find the necessary coherence.
The Philharmonia’s new RFH season begins on 30 September – Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich.
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