Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18
Symphonic Dances, Op.45
Kirill Gerstein (piano)
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 9 June, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Liadov was famously indolent, acquiring a country estate in 1884 through marriage and spending his summers there doing nothing. Kikimora (like Baba-Yaga and The Enchanted Lake) is of superb quality, and describes the child of a wizard who grows up into a witch with a body no bigger than a straw and a head the size of thimble – another of those Russian Fairy Tales which play so large a part in 19th-century orchestral literature. An atmospheric opening leads to a delicious cor anglais solo, fabulously played here by Jill Crowther, before the music bursts into ferocious life. There was some remarkably sophisticated string-playing and it was clear that the different sections of the orchestra were listening to each other with unusual care. The throwaway ending was perfectly timed and brought a collective chuckle from the audience.
The remainder of this programme might be thought too much of a good thing. After all a little familiar Rachmaninov can go a long way. Not from these artists. What sets Kirill Gerstein apart from other pianists is that he is at once a supreme virtuoso who is also a natural chamber musician, relishing every interchange with fellow performers. Once beyond the Second Concerto’s opening chords, the piano frequently elided into the orchestral tapestry or made music with individual soloists – to wit the deeply affecting flute duet with Michael Cox in the slow movement – yet at such significant moments as the first movement’s thunderous climax there was an imperious authority without any striving for effect. There is a patrician quality to Gerstein’s playing which finds an echo in Rachmaninov’s own recordings. This quicksilver unsentimental account of the concerto was as good as it gets and found the perfect complement in the Philharmonia’s gloriously committed accompaniment. As an encore, Rachmaninov’s Melodie (from Opus 3), was listened to by orchestra and audience alike in complete thrall.
After such riches Symphonic Dances might have proved an anti-climax. The Philharmonia Orchestra has played this tricky score on a number of occasions – conducted by Ashkenazy, Pletnev and Denève. Temirkanov brought an extra dimension. With no fuss whatsoever he breathed the very opening into laid-back life and the extended passage for winds with the saxophone solo (finely played by Simon Haram) had a dappled summer beauty rather as though one were observing a scene from Chekhov. The valse macabre second movement brought a subtly voiced violin solo from guest leader Andrew Haveron and culminated in some of the most voluptuously all-enveloping string-playing imaginable. The finale was cunningly paced, the change of tempo at the close held back to great effect rather than rushed, and the final gong stroke was truly shattering.