The Isle of the Dead, Op.29
Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.1 [Original Version]
Symphonic Dances, Op.45
Alexander Ghindin (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 3 October, 2014
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Rachmaninoff Inside Out, the London Philharmonic’s season-long survey of the composer’s orchestral music (also the choral works with orchestra, one of the operas and a selection of songs) began here with a concert featuring the ‘alpha’ and ‘omega’ of his published output.
Coming towards the middle of that output (in chronological if not temporal terms), The Isle of the Dead (1909) is among his most revealing (though not autobiographical) works – Arnold Böcklin’s famous painting having struck a resonance with numerous creative figures across the late-Romantic era. No stranger to the piece, Vladimir Jurowski directed a notably cohesive reading; a little tentative in its initial stages, perhaps, as the LPO took time to settle into the notably intricate textures – though there was no lack of inexorability as the first climax was approached, nor of passion during the intense supplication of the central episode with its crushing cumulative chords. After which, the first violins ably maintained intonation in the elegiac counter-melody accompanying the music through to its fateful close.
While it appears with some frequency on concert programmes nowadays, the First Piano Concerto is almost always heard in the 1917 revision rather than the 1891 original with which the teenage Rachmaninov made his public debut as both pianist and composer. Yet this first version was not suppressed or has fallen into oblivion (at least in Russia), making its inclusion in this series the more necessary. Alexander Ghindin (who made the first commercial recording of it) clearly appreciated the limitations but also the potential of solo writing which, for all its indebtedness to Grieg and Tchaikovsky, evinces an individual approach to the combining of piano with orchestra. Formally the first movement has a similar trajectory in both versions, but here the presentation of the themes is more generalised – leading to a less than purposeful development then a rather stolid reprise and coda. The wistful Andante is similarly literal in unfolding its less than memorable ideas, while the finale brings back its languorous central melody for an all-too-dutiful apotheosis of a kind Rachmaninov was later to make his own.
Not that hearing the music in this guise was other than absorbing, especially when Ghindin dispatched it with all the requisite flair and finesse. He returned for an eloquent account of a smouldering piece also from Rachmaninov’s early years, performed in its 1940 revision, the Moment Musical in E flat minor (Opus 16/2).
Forward nearly half-a-century to the Symphonic Dances (1940) with which Rachmaninov brought his creative career to its ultimate climax. Jurowski set a swift while always flexible tempo for the opening movement – its bracing outer sections exuding an almost Bartókian incisiveness, though with no lack of pathos in the plaintive alto-saxophone melody (beguilingly played by Martin Robertson) or the easeful coda. Other conductors have pointed up the expressive ambiguity of the central waltz more vividly, though Jurowski’s circumspection made the volatile dispersal of tension at its close the more telling. In the central phase of the finale, he underlined how the emotion is conveyed less through any definable theme than the astute manipulation of timbre and texture: an innovation for which this composer is still to receive his due. Elsewhere in this movement there was no lack of impetus – not least in the final pages where the ‘Dies irae’ and Russian sacred chant are starkly juxtaposed prior to the electrifying closing bars. Clearly the LPO’s Rachmaninov retrospective has been launched in impressive fashion.