Karelia – Suite, Op.11
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16
Symphony No.7 in D minor, Op.70
Khatia Buniatishvili (piano)
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 7 April, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
The Philharmonia Orchestra was rewarded with a full house for this afternoon and mainstream concert. Things started off less than promisingly with a plodding account of the ‘Intermezzo’ to open Sibelius’s Karelia Suite with unwelcome horn cracks and a very relaxed tempo which necessitated a fairly drastic speeding up for the climax before subsiding once more into torpor. An improvement came with the ‘Ballade’ given with a fine depth of string sound, some plangent wind-playing and an outstanding cor anglais solo from the ever-reliable Jill Crowther. Disappointingly, Paavo Järvi then made heavy weather of the ‘Alla marcia’, adopting a slightly slower than usual tempo and failing to give much lift to the rhythm.
One may not have agreed with details of Khatia Buniatishvili’s imperious account of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, which was louder, faster and – on occasion – slower than the norm, with every I double-dotted and every T double-crossed, but it was also the very antithesis of bland. It was as though she was determined to seize each moment and magnify its impact several fold. This was steel-tipped pianism. Not for nothing did Buniatishvili win a special prize at the Horowitz International Competition in Kiev (2003) since the thunderous torrents of sound she unleashed in the first-movement cadenza would have done credit to him. The downside was that the quality of sound sometimes hardened and verged on the clangourous. It cannot have been easy to respond to this degree of volatility. However, Järvi has worked with her previously and he and the Philharmonia were with her all the way, especially in the notably poetic account of the Adagio. The finale, which makes use of a Norwegian dance, the ‘Springe’, can seldom have been played more swiftly. Exhilarating stuff but the headlong tempo did necessitate an extreme slamming-on of the brakes for the closing peroration. There was a pile-driving if unannounced encore which sounded like Prokofiev.
Tovey numbered Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony amongst the six-finest since Beethoven. There is a teeming inner life to this score and, for the most part, it received a deeply satisfying performance, richly textured and notably well paced. The Allegro maestoso marking for the first movement sometimes causes interpreters to adopt a sluggish tempo which hangs fire. Adopting a flowing speed, Järvi sustained its momentum well, teasing out a great deal of detail and obtaining a welcome depth of string sound. Antiphonal violins, as here, are particularly helpful in this music. One quibble: Järvi started the poco a poco accelerando to the first movement’s climax earlier than marked, undermining some of its ferocious impact. The slow movement was just a little too moving-along for its melancholy to emerge fully but by way of compensation there were some particularly fine woodwind solos, especially Gordon Hunt’s almost Delian oboe epilogue. About the scherzo, with its wonderful cross-rhythms, and the incendiary finale there could few reservations.