Shaker Loops

Shaker Loops
Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings in C, Op.35 [Piano Concerto No.1]
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73

Olga Kern (piano) & Brian Thomson (trumpet)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 2 November, 2006
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Since his tenure with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin’s visits to the UK have become less frequent. However, he now holds the position of Principal Guest Conductor with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and here took charge of a stimulating programme.

Brahms’s Second symphony received an affectionate performance, Slatkin conducting without score or baton. At times the dense contrapuntal textures were too much for the venue, or the front seats at any rate – though the hall had its advantages in the softer music, the intimacy of a chamber orchestra brought to mind.

A warm-hearted first movement dispensed with the exposition repeat, Slatkin interweaving the often-complex thematic workings with impressive fluidity. The cellos excelled in their second theme, and they were to the fore not only in the richer string sound of the Adagio but also the passionate finale. Oboist John Anderson gave a charming solo to begin the intermezzo-like third movement, though this featured an unsuccessful rallentando at the end of the first phrase.

With attention to detail, careful dynamic shading and a real sense of enjoyment this was a most satisfying performance.

Even more so was John Adams’s Shaker Loops, the reduced string orchestra arranged with cellos around the back, with two double basses at the rear.

The shimmering figures were perfectly shaded, with vibrato removed as appropriate, bows springy on the fingerboard during ‘Shaking and Trembling’. An unstoppable momentum took hold for ‘A Final Shaking’, the feel of a great machine getting into gear and rushing headlong toward the close. In the slower music the double bass section felt under-powered – numerically, perhaps – but the cellos drove the lower parts forward. Slatkin’s conducting dealt authoritative beats so that the edges were not blurred, this well-drilled performance making quite an impact overall.

So too did Shostakovich’s riotous First Piano Concerto, though its interpretation was puzzling at times. The heavy-set approach to the first movement bordered on brutality, ploughing on with little or no humour. Olga Kern’s technique throughout was formidable, her nimble fingerwork making light of Shostakovich’s virtuoso demands. However I was left unmoved by the lack of feeling given to the Lento’s opening phrase, the piano’s ensuing climax dry and brittle. Trumpeter Brian Thomson was on hand to provide a genuinely tender solo here, though in standing back somewhat his projection was threatened by the raised piano lid.

And so to the boisterous, madcap finale – again short on humour initially but thawing rapidly as the music entered its closing stages. Kern threw off her phrases with obvious enjoyment, hammed up where appropriate, while the orchestra’s sharp chords manfully attempted to bring her into line as the trumpet fanfares blasted indignantly. All crossed the line together, to the evident pleasure of the audience.

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