Rienzi – Overture
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14
Sunwook Kim (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers
Reviewed: 9 November, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Before Richard Wagner revolutionised opera through the production of his “music dramas” he had produced three ‘grand operas’, beginning with “Die Feen”. “Das Liebesverbot” followed and then the came the five-act “Rienzi”, though he was working on this at the same time as “Der fliegende Holländer”. It is very easy to overlook these formative works, and this is compounded by the fact that Wagner himself seemed embarrassed by them. He certainly disliked the popularity that “Rienzi” enjoyed. In the Italianate style, it is very tuneful.
The overture made for a lively and joyous opener to this concert, the London Philharmonic in heartened form. There was no shying away from the jolly tunes that may have been the cause of Wagner’s embarrassment and explored with vigour by Vassily Sinaisky. The tragedy of the opera had a home in the introduction, though.
Sunwook Kim took First Prize at the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition in 2006. He offered here a pretentious account of Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody. Too often the playing was robotic, and whilst he does not display the outrageous histrionics of Lang Lang he does seem to be heading that way. The moments that can exude saccharine did, which is not an advantage. What he was able to do with success was offer surprise where the music shifts mood considerably. Elsewhere there was little thought given to contrasts and exploration. The ‘Dies Irae’ motif that appears in several variations was limp. The final surge to the end, after the famous Variation 18, lacked exactly that feeling.
Symphonie fantastique received a well thought-through performance, despite the lack of antiphonal violins, surely a must. Effective, doom-laden off-stage bells, a military drum and four harps (two is sometimes felt to be enough) all added to the aural delight. The first movement’s slow opening was full of mystery. Those harps were superb in the second movement, crisp and flighty. ‘Scène aux champs’ may have benefited from a swifter tempo. As is becoming common practice, Sinaisky observed the repeat of the opening material in ‘March to the Scaffold’. Given defiant treatment, there was nobility here, too. A spectacular closing ‘Witches’ Sabbath’, with a ‘Dies Irae’ that was chilling and powerful, occupied frightful territory. A ‘delight in the dramatic’ seemed to be Sinaisky’s idea, and this gave the work a truly fantastique edge.