Philharmonia Sokhiev

The Firebird – 1919 Suite
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
Symphonic Dances, Op.45

Peter Jablonski (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Tugan Sokhiev

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 30 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

No apologies for starting with the Symphonic Dances, the last item on the programme, but whose superb overall quality was in precisely inverse proportion to the concert’s relatively short duration – we were treated to thoroughly rehearsed and totally committed playing.

The Symphonic Dances – a glorious late work whose cool reception at its 1941 premiere left the composer deeply disappointed – were breathed effortlessly into life. Quite simply this was as exhilarating and convincing a live performance as one could hope to hear. Under Tugan Sokhiev the Philharmonia Orchestra gave of its superb best, playing not only with warmth, precision and flexibility but also with real passion and power. One reason for the work’s initially cool reception may have been a polarisation of the audience: between ultra-conservative listeners finding it too modern, and critics being suspicious of Rachmaninov’s old-fashioned romantic idiom. However the comparative lack of performances since then may have more to do with the fact that its tricky tempo switches and translucent textures frequently demand a level of orchestral response difficult to achieve on brief rehearsal. The work has found an ideal interpreter in Sokhiev.

As anyone who heard his 2003 performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony can testify, Sokhiev is the real thing, a conductor that inspires the Philharmonia to play with the sort of refined balances and overall finesse one remembers from, say, Paul Kletzki. Sokhiev shapes Rachmaninov’s sinuous extended string melodies with an unerring ear for their ebb and flow, and in particular for that jugular moment at their heart – so that they always culminate, never meander. The orchestra’s actual sound quality was a joy throughout. Of course it helps having a peerless woodwind section and a Leader such as Maya Iwabuchi; her solo at the beginning of the spectral Waltz had a resonant depth and stylistic rightness. That alone does not account for the sheer voluptuous abandon of the string playing at this second movement’s climax or the crackle of electricity behind the finale’s aggression. Very occasionally in live performances one senses something quite scary being unleashed, as if music-making were one of the Black Arts and a higher force were taking over an orchestra’s collective unconscious, seizing the musicians and impelling them to something beyond their immediate control. So it was here.

Earlier Peter Jablonski had played the Paganini Rhapsody, a work he recorded with Vladimir Ashkenazy; that recording won an Edison award. This was almost on the same exalted level; Sokhiev is an excellent accompanist. Fleet of foot and crisp of touch, Jablonski, the cool Swede, gave a patrician performance which played up the work’s concertante qualities and proved an excellent antidote to the overweight pummelling that this work can be subjected. Tempo relationships were conspicuously well judged, the famous ‘Variation 18’ was treated with immense dignity and the final three variations were despatched at speed with hair-trigger crispness by soloist and orchestra alike.

The concert opened with a slightly less secure performance of the 1919 Firebird Suite, the second of the three such versions, although Sokhiev’s lightness of touch was admirable.

Hopefully the Philharmonia could now programme Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony with Sokhiev, another tricky and underplayed work to which his talents are supremely well suited.

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