Concert Overture, Op.12
Piano Concerto in F sharp minor, Op.20
Symphony No.1 in D minor, Op.13
Igor Levit (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 3 December, 2014
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
The programme note described Szymanowski’s early Concert Overture as “rollicking”, an unexpected word to apply to the first of Poland’s big four 20th-century composers, whose later music is best known for its exotic yearnings and folk inspiration. As a young man, though, in search of an identity in his fractured homeland, Szymanowski embraced Wagner and Richard Strauss with a will, as was loud and clear in this work, which surges heroically and passionately, while leaving enough room for a tender, interestingly opaque love theme. It could be music for any hero, from Zarathustra to Siegfried. Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO clearly relished Szymanowski’s accomplished, heavily romantic writing, covering the territory from blazing brass, curvaceous woodwind melodies and swooning strings. It’s an impressive stylistic assimilation, and worlds removed from the later hazy refinement of his opera King Roger and the intoxicating ‘Song of the Night’ Symphony No.3.
Igor Levit has been pinning ears back with his revelatory Beethoven and Bach, so when a musician of his calibre embraces Scriabin, I braced myself for the breaching of preconceptions. I’ve never been convinced by Scriabin’s ecstatic hyperbole or his chromatic extremities. Nor am I attracted by a visionary ego that screams louder than his notes. My loss, perhaps, but this fastidious airing of the early Piano Concerto was persuasive enough to suggest I might reconsider.
The few performances I’ve heard of this work have been fatally inflated, with results either like Chopin on steroids or on the wrong side of the tracks from Brief Encounter. Levit and Jurowski worked with, not against, its chamber-like intimacy. The Chopinesque rippling had a lightness of being that could have sounded self-effacing but for Levit’s subtle rapport with the orchestra, his soloist ascendancy never taken for granted. The Andante had piano and orchestra twining round each other with mutually complementary charm, and the climactic surge of the finale was all the more effective in its sudden and unabashed exuberance.
Jurowski completely had the measure of the music’s individuality, its emotional range and economic orchestration (with a generous allocation of beautifully played woodwind solos), with Levit’s poised, slightly reserved playing cleverly extending its expression. It was a winning performance, but possibly Levit’s encore, a transfiguring examination of Busoni’s arrangement of J. S. Bach’s chorale prelude ‘Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland’ (BWV659), showed us this master pianist’s true centre of gravity.The Scriabin first saw the light of day in 1897, the same year as Rachmaninov’s First Symphony. The horrors of its premiere are well known and were responsible for the work being perceived as much of a ‘known unknown’ in terms of slow public acceptance as, say, Mahler’s music was in this country. If ever a performance of this wonderful Symphony rendered it unequivocally as a major player in Rachmaninov’s output, it was here.
Jurowski had the composer’s characteristic opposites of seething energy and melancholic distraction attracting each other like magnets. The LPO’s playing magnificently projected the music’s tautness and equally strong expansiveness, the sound and style honoured Rachmaninov’s debt to Tchaikovsky without being overwhelmed by it, evidence of the power and imagination careering through a score that gave the composer so much grief. Rachmaninov’s economy of means and signature references to the ‘Dies irae’ motto took on a life of their own, the self-referential and Tolstoy-inspired love music worked its doom-laden spell, the shroud of a slow movement was a miracle of veiled hope and regret, and the brass fanfares at the start of the finale blazed with hair-raising precision and ferocity, brilliantly setting up the tam-tam-led catastrophe of the Symphony’s closing pages.
Rachmaninov’s darkness and volatility leapt off the page, marshalled by Jurowski with his uncanny sense of the music’s direction and sympathy with its spiritual complexity. To hear this conductor ‘playing’ his great orchestra is to be reminded once again of the extraordinary lucidity of their connection.