Immagini da Escher [London premiere]
Maja [UK premiere]
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83
Symphony No.8 in C minor, Op.65
Valentina Coladonato (soprano)
Members of the Philharmonia OrchestraWen-Pin Chien [Fedele]
Arcadi Volodos (piano)
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 9 February, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Introduced by artistic director Unsuk Chin, Music of Today offered a welcome opportunity to hear two works by Italian Ivan Fedele (born 1953), who has composed more than 100 works. Immagini da Escher (scored for violin, cello, flute, clarinet, percussion and piano) takes as its point of departure Escher’s obsessive use of geometrical forms, echoed in music in which repeated rhythmic patterns predict a resolution which is not forthcoming. In his introductory comments the composer focused on the processes of composition – whereas the piano can play only in tones and semitones, the other instruments can manage microtones. He mentioned Mobius’s Ring in the context of the circulatory nature of things, posing the question ‘Who asks, who answers’, pointing out that whereas at first we know the answer, later the instruments create a continuous chain and the answer becomes indistinct. This often-fragmentary music proved memorable, stillness or near-inaudibility and sudden burst of activity frequently juxtaposed to good effect.
Far less immediately engaging – despite Unsuk Chin’s extravagant claims for the work – was the similarly scored Maja, a song-cycle based on Giuliano Corti’s poem about the mythological nymph, the eldest and most beautiful of the Pleiades. The ensemble was joined by Valentina Coladonato (whose mentors include Regina Resnik and Renata Scotto). Burdened with a heavily symbolic text – “Ripe figs hang from the branch shaken by desire I long for the dark skin that splits open” – this is at once sensuous and unremittingly complex, often resorting to a form of sprechtstimme and music whose niceties were elusive. The performances of this demanding music were exemplary.
The evening’s main business comprised two works either of which would normally occupy pole position in any concert, Brahms at his grandest followed by what is arguably Shostakovich’s bleakest and most harrowing symphony. They made very odd bedfellows.
Arcadi Volodos appears all too rarely in the UK. However, despite the most solicitous of accompaniments, this account of the Brahms was distinctly uneven. Expansive though the concerto may be, Volodos was pliant to a point where the music frequently ground to a near halt, especially in the opening movement where strength and rigour were in short supply. In compensation there were moments of real magic such as when the finest brush of piano-sound leads to the recapitulation with the horn stealing in as if from afar. After an uneven scherzo, which suddenly lunged forward at the sempre agitato, the slow movement was better by far – Timothy Walden’s fine cello solo rightly embedded in the orchestral texture and with much exploratory poetry from the pianist. The playful finale, its grazioso marking much in evidence, brought a welcome touch of whimsy. However, despite Volodos’s evident affection and pleasure in his interplay with the orchestra, one seldom felt that this is a work whose world he inhabits naturally. As an encore, Sokhiev played Schubert’s Minuet in C sharp minor, D600.
No such comment could be levelled at Tugan Sokhiev and the Philharmonia Orchestra in Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony, memorably given in this same hall in 1960 by its dedicatee Evgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic. In the controversial book Testimony, Shostakovich is quoted as saying “The War brought much new sorrow and much new destruction, but I haven’t forgotten the terrible pre-war years. This is what my symphonies beginning with the Fourth are about, including the Seventh and Eighth.”
This was superbly played and paced with the Philharmonia’s strings at their most resplendent in the long sostenuto lines, the huge climaxes emerging unforced but with a granitic force. Sokhiev’s refusal to overplay his hand and avoidance of agogic distortion paid particular dividends and there were many outstanding individual contributions, most notably Jill Crowther’s extended cor anglais threnody in the backwash to the first movement’s gigantic climax and the first horn, Katy Woolley’s subtle presence in the Largo.
The symphony poses a particular structural problem; after the gigantic opening movement, the rambunctious Allegretto (a picture of unstoppable military might) and the toccata-like third movement, the final two movements are on an altogether lower level of intensity and can seem something of an anticlimax. Has it all gone on ten minutes too long, a thought Sokhiev did his best to banish but which still lingered? Even in a performance as good as this, the final movement – all passion spent – seemed like a very long goodbye.