Royal Philharmonic/Rozhdestvensky Viktoria Postnikova

Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor, Op.21
Overture – The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), Op.26
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82

Viktoria Postnikova (piano)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Gennadi Rozhdestvensky

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 15 April, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Gennadi RozhdestvenskyThere is something uniquely satisfying about Sibelius’s music. There are none of the manipulative, self-pitying elements to be heard in many of his contemporaries, nor really any of the remnants of an outworn Romantic idiom favoured by others. Like Debussy, Sibelius created a fresh way of composing music, notable for innovation (as opposed to revolution) as much as an originality of sound. These two musicians represent the peak of post-Romantic music. Indeed both developed a delightful anti-authoritarian (anti-Teutonic) attitude to composing, in a way rivalled only by Stravinsky.

Unlike his French and Russian counterparts, Sibelius sought to develop an interest primarily in symphonic thought that would ensure, sooner or later, a major clash with his supposed “betters” from the Austro-German centres. By the time Sibelius completed his Fifth Symphony, in 1919, battle was well and truly joined. Sibelius had developed an idiosyncratic symphonic style that gradually usurped the rights of composers from the historic centres of Berlin and Vienna to declare their superiority in symphonic thinking.

Today, of all Sibelius’s seven completed symphonies (he burnt the Eighth), it is the Fifth which enjoys the most acclaim from across the spectrum of listeners. Symphonies Four and Six do not have the approbation of a general audience and are also often-ignored by connoisseurs (much to their shame). This makes Sibelius a fascinating creative force, one capable of conjuring up almost complete disinterest among music-lovers for some of his finest works yet hitting the nail squarely on the head with the Fifth Symphony, for which the gestation period far outweighed the relative ease in the composition of the symphonies either side.

The strangeness of this circumstance is matched only by the strangeness of the music itself. Audiences leave concerts humming the horn melody from the finale with little or no recollection of the intellectual turmoil contained in the first movement. And yet the music in this movement is every bit as vital and life-affirming. It is the setting of the big tune within the context of the overall work that substantiates the endurance of this work and allows a contemporary composer and writer, Peter Paul Nash, to declare the Fifth Symphony as the “masterpiece of the 20th century”. Meanwhile a composer of the avant-garde, Morton Feldman, when speaking at a Darmstadt conference stated “new music can sound old and old music can sound new” while humming the great melody from the Fifth Symphony finale.

Viktoria Postnikova. Photograph: Jacques SarratIt befalls the conductor of this music to uphold such tributes. None of the greatest works by Sibelius are easy to perform. Many remain (scandalously) obscure, so that orchestras struggle to enter and understand the idiom and sonority of Sibelius’s inspiration. Gennadi Rozhdestvensky has known Sibelius’s symphonies over many years. His 1970s’ Moscow-recorded cycle demands release on compact disc. The RPO allowed us to witness a remarkable interpretation on Symphony 5. Rozhdestvensky was in exceptionally spacious mood throughout the concert, none more so than in Sibelius and shared with Viktoria Postnikova whose conception of Chopin (replacing the advertised Beethoven No.2) was elongated in the extreme. She displayed her numerous skills, some of them a little heavy-handed, in true Russian style, and her playing was not free from blemish. The best of her performance was heard in the central section of the slow movement where her improvisatory manner was truly personal.

Only the Sibelius remained unaltered. When heard in this performance, it is tempting to state a special relationship exists between conductor and composer. Certainly this was an idiosyncratic performances of the Fifth Symphony. Each movement was carefully moulded by the conductor’s long baton and extemporised style. This places much responsibility on the players to respond. The RPO was generally up to the task. The ending of the first movement is usually a helter-skelter rush to the finishing line; Rozhdestvensky’s measured tempo precluded any such risk of catastrophe in favour of a stately and safe conclusion. The conductor was not interested in establishing a pulse to this movement; rather he conjured colour and texture over form and shape. It was highly expressive playing with emphasis on the individuality inherent in the music.

He stands, as always, on the floor before his orchestra, podium eschewed, recognition of a desire for equality in the music-making, perhaps. His gestures are economic and his pursuit of truth comes in place of flashy virtuosity. The evening began with the “Egmont” Overture, part of Beethoven’s incidental music, so lacking in visceral excitement it was almost possible to feel short-changed. But the quality of renewal in the creative act of conducting is very impressive. It was as if the music was being written in front of us. Rozhdestvensky invests his performances, including that of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, with panache – and very welcome it is too.

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