Philharmonia Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko [Shostakovich & Sibelius … Simon Trpčeski plays Tchaikovsky]

Festive Overture, Op.96
Piano Concerto No.2 in G, Op.44 [Siloti version]
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43

Simon Trpčeski (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 5 June, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Vasily Petrenko. Styled by Lorraine McCulloch, courtesy of Cricket Liverpool, photograph:Mark McNultyThis conventional programme had at least two twists. Shostakovich’s Festive Overture has a rather unusual history; first performed at a concert to celebrate the 1917 Revolution, Shostakovich pretended that he had just written the piece whereas the work had been hidden away for seven years until after Stalin’s death and its first performance in 1954 was a testing of the water in the new political climate. Imagine the Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla re-composed for the twentieth century. It got the evening off to a fizzing start and drew the most completely satisfactory performance, crisp, balanced and committed.

And then the version of Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto which we heard was not the composer’s original but the now-discredited edition by his former pupil Alexander Siloti, which makes radical changes and dispenses with the slow movement’s main melodic interest and also severely diminishes its eloquent violin (Maya Iwabuchi) and cello (Karen Stephenson) solos. Tchaikovsky (and his publisher) strongly resisted Siloti’s cuts and alterations. Nevertheless, four years after Tchaikovsky’s death the score was re-issued in Siloti’s version and – as the Philharmonia’s programme note disingenuously put it – “nearly all subsequent versions – including the one used tonight – follow(ed) this revised text.” It is perfectly possible to play what Tchaikovsky intended, and numerous pianists – including Donohoe, Douglas, Hough, Lowenthal, Marshev, Postnikova and Scherbakov – do exactly that.

Simon TrpčeskiIt would be hard to deny Simon Trpčeski’s impressive command of the notes in terms of prestidigitation and well-honed technique. Musically however there was a great deal to be desired even leaving aside a slow movement reduced by Siloti to half its length, which as originally composed Tchaikovsky had been very proud of. There was little sense of Trpčeski interacting with the orchestra and it was left to the eloquently soulful first-movement flute solo of Katherine Baker to make clear precisely what was missing. Tempos in the outer movements were consistently pushed along – two young men in a hurry – as though an all-purpose joie de vivre was a substitute for musical characterisation. It isn’t.

Any half-decently played performance of Sibelius’s Second Symphony will elicit rapturous applause and this was undoubtedly half-decent with some notably fine and resonant string-playing. Vasily Petrenko has achieved rave reviews for his Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich recordings but herein lay the rub. Sibelius is not Tchaikovsky, even in the two early symphonies, and Petrenko’s reading was misconceived from first note to last. In all four movements he appeared to be in search of a hot-house emotionalism entirely alien to this most majestic of outdoor music, consistently dragging tempos – the Andante here the most dreary of trudges – only to accelerate rapidly, almost uncontrollably, at climaxes, and forever gilding the lily rather than letting the music speak for itself. There was little sense of tensions building gradually over long spans – the transition from the scherzo into the finale ducked the issue of how to get from one to the other and with balances left to fend for themselves; instead of bursting on us with the unstoppable momentum of a tidal wave the last movement turned into the most predictable of plods. There were some fine individual contributions, but overall this was a fidgety, lightweight reading which barely scratched the music’s surface.

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