Night on the Bare Mountain [Original Version]
Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.16
The Firebird [Original 1910 Version]

François-Frédéric Guy (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 3 November, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The Philharmonia Orchestra’s new season continued with a Russian programme more or less familiar. Night on the Bare Mountain was given in Mussorgsky’s original version from 1867 – a Gothic orchestral scherzo compared to the earnest and relatively insipid tone poem it becomes in Rimsky-Korsakov’s increasingly less played overhaul; the four continuous sections evoking a St John’s Eve wake whose satanic qualities have a distinctly ironic edge. Esa-Pekka Salonen gave the music due expressive license and, though not all the instrumental balances were solved (Mussorgsky’s Berliozian lack of inhibition would have shocked even the French master had he been able to hear the piece), the sense of an orchestral soundworld almost intuitively taking shape was vividly conveyed.

François-Frédéric Guy. Photograph: Guy VivienIf Mussorgsky was here following his own convictions, Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto finds the 22-year-old intent on cowing his audience into submission with a potent if unwieldy amalgam of late Romantic rhetoric and proto-Modernist gestures. A combination that can seem to succeed more by luck than judgement, but with François-Frédéric Guy as soloist, there was no likelihood of the piece sounding rough-edged or bombastic. He brought equivocal poise to the twin themes of the Andantino, such that the cadenza transformed material with a keen sense of exploding its previous containment.

Initially passive in support, Salonen ensured the climactic return of the opening motif was balefully majestic – matching Guy in the coruscating agility brought to the scherzo and the sardonic wit of the Intermezzo, whose suave sense of the grotesque can seldom have been more convincingly rendered. The oddly-constituted variations on a Tchaikovskian theme that largely comprises the final Allegro had a finely-judged momentum, with the return of the movement’s initial toccata music no mere closing flourish, but an integrated – even inevitable – end to this most wilfully impressive of twentieth-century concertos. Following his often-convincing account of Brahms’s D minor in Birmingham earlier this year, Guy is clearly a pianist with much to contribute to the still-too-limited concerto repertoire.

Stravinsky’s The Firebird is hardly a rarity now in its original version (your reviewer clearly having encountered it more often than the Philharmonia’s programme annotator Wendy Thompson!) – to those below the Philharmonia itself last played Firebird complete in London in October 2003 under Thierry Fischer – and it’s a work that ought to bring the best out of this orchestra and Salonen. So it proved over much of the work’s duration: Salonen’s expressive nudges in the ‘Introduction’ were a little calculated, while a sense that he was more obviously ‘conducting’ the numerous transitional passages and leaving the main sections to the orchestra’s executive capabilities (hardly an error of judgement in this instance) meant what emerged was a reading unusually coherent overall, but whose highpoints often failed so to register. Yet there was no lack of drive in the ‘Infernal Dance’, and the ‘Apotheosis’ emerged out of its rapt stillness to make a properly affirmative impact. Salonen cued in several offstage brass entries that, now the complete ballet has returned to favour, have emerged from eight decades of oblivion. The QEH acoustic strained to accommodate it all, but only those in front stalls risked serious discomfort.

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