Prom 60: Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra

Kurt Weill
Kleine Dreigroschenmusik

Thomas Adès
Piano Concerto

Sergey Rachmaninov
Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.44

Kirill Gerstein (piano)

Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 31 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

Berlin has so many ensembles that the identity of this one was not immediately apparent (to me at least). The Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin is in fact the contemporary manifestation of the East German radio orchestra kept going by conductor Rolf Kleinert when many of its players fled West with the construction of the Berlin Wall and sounding in pretty fine fettle sixty years on. Directed by Marek Janowski for much of the present century, Jurowski has been its chief conductor since 2017 and he looks set to remain so despite his grander job as Generalmusikdirektor of the Bavarian State Opera. By accident or design tonight’s programme reflected the peripatetic internationalism of his own career. It will also be given in Berlin’s Philharmonie.

The team began on home turf with Weill’s suite, originally presented by Otto Klemperer, a po-faced interpreter in later life which perhaps explains the conductor’s reluctance to exaggerate or over-point. He and his orchestra are no strangers to the idiom yet this was one of those performances which will have sounded far better on air than it did in the hall. Smaller wind-based ensembles in the Royal Albert Hall give out waves of sound that not only travel to the far end of the building but bounce back again, producing aural confusion from most seats. Jurowski’s tempos were mostly relaxed, the attack not-quite sharp enough, but then the zippier approach to the uptempo foxtrot and Charleston movements merely confused the ear. Kirill Gerstein played in the ensemble.

‘Too clever by half’ sums up the uncomprehending contemporary reaction to much of Benjamin Britten’s early output. Adès’s Piano Concerto is rather different, a deliberate provocation in the manner of Gerald Barry. Taunting the listener with its callous, empty brilliance, it has nonetheless been widely acclaimed. Lasting around twenty minutes, the score resembles nothing so much as an extended, updated Hoffnung gag about concerto writing. Somewhere in the tangle of notes, Rachmaninov’s Fourth Piano Concerto is crossed with Ligeti, meeting Gershwin, Prokofiev, Bartók and many more along the way, possibly Britten himself. The solo part was dispatched with apparent aplomb by the pianist for whom it was written, not the first time he has wowed the London audience with its torrent of figuration. To describe the work as did one Boston critic as Adès’s ‘greatest achievement to date’ seems wholly bonkers. It is a technically bulletproof product of genius but something has gone badly wrong if the best we can expect of a 21st-century piano concerto is a cartoon.  Least vacuous is the downbeat ‘processional’ slow movement: fewer notes, more gongs and, perhaps, more heart. The encore was the pianist’s own arrangement of an early Rachmaninov song, ‘In the silence of the secret night’, the third of his Six Romances Op.4. A kind of bridge to the second half as was suggested.

Rachmaninov never appeared at the Proms, whatever Vladimir Jurowski chooses to believe, although he did play his own Second Piano Concerto at Henry Wood’s Jubilee concert in the Royal Albert Hall, just days after the end of the 1938 season during which the conductor introduced the Third Symphony to Proms audiences. (The Queen’s Hall in Langham Place was the season’s regular venue until the building’s destruction during a bombing raid at the height of the Blitz.)  Jurowski saved the best or at least the most novel part of tonight’s concert until the very end, disinterring Wood’s own heavy-handed arrangement of the C-sharp minor Prelude as an encore. It was fascinating to hear once, an organist’s arrangement as my companion suggested.  In a brief address before his encore the conductor also informed the audience that Rachmaninov and Sir Henry were friends (true) and that the Third Symphony had received its first UK outing under Sir Henry (false – I think it was Beecham). Once wholly neglected – the composer ruefully noted that only three people really liked the Symphony: Wood, the violinist Adolf Busch and Rachmaninov himself – it has become sufficiently familiar for one to carp at some of Jurowski’s decisions. Dispensing with the first-movement exposition repeat, he obtained much fine playing with plentiful expressive slides from the strings and eloquent touches from the winds, but why the gratuitous lingering?  Even in the dangerously episodic finale, where Rachmaninov’s intentions remain distinctly mysterious to this listener, living in the moment took precedence over structural cohesion, although the ending was mercifully unmannered. Elsewhere more drive would have been nice. The players were seated ‘centrally’ and quite far back on the platform with more of them than usual positioned on raised levels. This seemed to firm up the sound nicely. The hall was commendably full though there were empty seats, the audience generally quiet.

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