Philharmonia Saraste

Don Giovanni – Overture
Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, Op.30
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82

Freddy Kempf (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 11 November, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The overture to Don Giovanni is a sure-fire opener. It begins loudly and ominously. Soon its tone lightens, darkens again, and then lightens as the curtain rises. And yet, here, doom-laden chords arrived in metronomic isolation and scales heavy with foreboding skipped lightly past. Saraste eschewed suspense. Then, in lighter passages, he emphasised the first beat in each bar abrasively – to sound like horsemen slashing savagely at a festive crowd. Why?

Owing to Arcadi Volodos’s last-minute withdrawal, Freddy Kempf – a pianist much in demand – became the soloist. The technical difficulties are notorious. Kempf made a commendable effort contributing to an unsparing, large, robust performance of this work. The great, romantic moments swelled loudly, in driven, barnstorming propulsion. Softer moments were notable, too – quiet, charged and intense, though Kempf strenuously tried too obviously to be heartfelt, not quite succeeding. His louder moments carried tension and strain – both technical and expressive and, overall, the performance lacked subtlety.

Consider these two routes to performing Rachmaninov. The first and most common identifies his music as that of a great Russian juggernaut with luscious, swelling and memorable themes which, thankfully, come round more than once. Yet, there are yawning gaps between one luscious moment and the next. Performers must bridge them as best they can. Such, broadly, was Kempf’s approach. The second course is to identify Rachmaninov’s process as that of a reticent, melancholic, probably depressive man, needing to contact his inner, introverted self before he can release resources of emotionally intense peaks. Here, the silver of introversion and the burnished gold of extraversion oscillate in continuity.

A case in point is the opening to the first movement. Kempf was quiet and Saraste quieter still – also unemphatic, without spring and unbeguiling. Nothing doing at present, they seemed to say. Stay around, though! A big moment will come along soon!

Saraste is a noted conductor of Sibelius, with two recorded cycles under his belt. I found his interpretation character-less. Saraste seemed to treat the musicians merely as purveyors of Sibelius’s rather quirkily distributed notes. Moreover, instruments have resonance, echo and bloom. To be sure, these are disadvantages to crystalline musical precision, but they are part of the nature of instruments – and, hence, intrinsic to the notion, and the love, of music-making.

Not here. Saraste’s interpretation was neutral and exact. I preferred, in memory, the exultation when the Philharmonia played this Sibelius symphony under Leif Segerstam. The world shook, then.

One bonus of Saraste’s stance was that the difficult transition to the scherzo section during the first movement was achieved effortlessly. It was, after all, merely a sequence of notes carefully played.

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