Segerstam New World

Pre-Concert Recital

Davidsbündlertänze, Op.6
Piano Sonata No.2 in D minor, Op.14

Evelina Puzaite (piano)

Main Concert

Ruslan and Ludmilla – Overture
Concerto for piano and orchestra in D flat
Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95 (From the New World)

Boris Berezovsky (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Leif Segerstam


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 20 January, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The Philharmonia Orchestra has an engaging way with pre-concert events: if it’s not the innovative “Music of Today” series then it’s the occasional recital by a young musician affiliated to the “Martin Musical Scholarship Fund”.

One such is Evelina Puzaite, from Vilnius, who offered a stimulating and demanding 6 o’clock programme juxtaposing extensive and elusive Schumann with quixotic Prokofiev (the latter making one think of it as the darker side of the Schumann coin). Maybe at the next recital (17 March) the microphone that Martyn Jones (Administrator of the Martin Fund) used to introduce the pianist could be switched off? “White noise” was audible through the speakers: not distracting but noticeable. Anyway, Puzaite gave an impressive showing, and was unfazed by flash-photography a few seconds into the Schumann (and similarly in the Prokofiev) – those people playing with their toys have no thought that a sudden distraction could affect the performer.

The Schumann was poised, refined and thoughtfully done, the slower numbers poetic, the faster ones never too fleet or loud. The Prokofiev was similarly musical yet could have done with more abandon and edge, greater contrasts, and more sarcasm in the finale. Nevertheless, Puzaite is clearly someone to watch for; and she played a delightful encore with real style and affection. It may have been a very early Chopin piece; whatever, it was quite charming.

The main concert returned to avuncular figure of Leif Segerstam to the Philharmonia; a jolly, grey-bearded man who invariably has one thinking of Father Christmas and Brahms to look at. Segerstam’s tempo for the Glinka overture was spot-on – articulation and detail were given every chance; indeed, he traced the music through with a delicacy and generosity that this ‘showpiece’ rarely enjoys.

Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto can normally seem a banal and bombastic piece, yet seemed less so in this fabulous performance. Segerstam directed an orchestral response that had one re-thinking Khachaturian’s craftsmanship, and Boris Berezovsky gave a remarkable account of the solo part. This was musicianship of the highest order; Berezovsky’s transcendental technique can be taken for granted and, here, it was his lucid, touch-sensitive and colourful playing, which eschewed excess and cliché, that was such a pleasure in itself. For an encore Berezovsky played a piece by Segerstam himself (a prodigiously prolific composer); I caught only ‘seven’ and ‘infinity’ from the pianist’s introduction. The music proved to be an intriguing trill-encrusted piece, Impressionistically cosmic (if you will), and was played with the composer sitting on the stairs leading to the platform.

The ‘New World’ symphony, great though it is, is one of those pieces that can fall into disrepute simply because it is played too often and too familiarly. London has been lucky this season with performances of this music – a vernal account from Masur (LPO) and a divisive one (clinical and hard-pressed, or thrilling) from Maazel (LSO). Things come in threes for Segerstam produced one of the most picturesque and beguiling versions of this so-familiar music heard for a long time. This was a reading that focussed on the quieter end of the dynamic scale; climactic fortissimos were rare and all the more telling when they arrived. Yet there was nothing manufactured about Segerstam’s conducting; indeed, the opening bars immediately caught the composer’s homesickness (the symphony has been described as a “postcard home”; from New York to Prague).

In the first movement, Segerstam’s springy account of the (repeated) exposition found joy and, with the third subject flute melody, pathos. The famous ‘Largo’ was as smooth as silk but with no lack of poignancy as the core of the music was subtly searched; and Cathy Lowe played a most sensitive cor anglais solo. Segerstam’s handling of tempo changes was indivisible and the quiet solo string playing at the movement’s close was affectingly hushed (not so the audience’s coughing!).

In the remaining movements, Segerstam’s unforced, variegated conducting found a beguiling response from the Philharmonia: the scherzo and trio danced on tiptoe and the finale gathered strength in a wholly organic way. The real frisson came with Mark van de Wiel’s clarinet solo in the finale, which got down to ppp (or lower) and was responded to with wonderful tenderness and elegance by the cellos. A magical moment and, surely, a signal that Segerstam will return often to the Philharmonia.

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