Prom 69: Unsettling C major

Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor
Symphony No.8 in C minor

André Watts (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 10 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The opening of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto immediately compels attention – quiet chords on the piano, building in intensity and leading to arpeggios which herald the arrival of the first theme played on the strings. The piano is marked ’fortissimo con passione’, and it was the ’passione’ which was underplayed in this performance. André Watts is a sensitive player with the requisite fluidity of technique to encompass Rachmaninov’s often fiendish writing, but on this occasion, his tone seemed under-projected. Whether this was a result of misjudging the RAH’s acoustic, or a deliberate artistic decision, the fact remains that this was an understated, rather restrained reading of the concerto.

However, there was still much to enjoy and appreciate, and Slatkin was a sympathetic collaborator and accompanist. He drew warm, expressive playing from the strings at the start and the woodwind and horn contributions blended most effectively, but one really needed a more fiery approach all round at moments such as the march-like episode where the opening theme returns and the piano has spiky rhythms which demand to be driven home. Tension mounted towards the end of the movement, andthe conclusion was suitably brusque and forceful.

There was an almost impressionistic feel to the start of the poetic slow movement where Watts’s reserve proved effective, and he ensured that the rippling piano writing was well integrated into the whole, whilst Slatkin encouraged eloquent playing from the orchestra to paint a moving sense of regret and nostalgia. In the ’Finale’ one could again admire Watts’s nimble fluency, and be grateful for the fact that the ’big tune’ was treated with nobility on its initial statement from violas and cor anglais, yet a sense of culmination and urgency was missing, although Slatkin drove the final pages onward with commendable energy.

The more meaty material of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony was another matter. Throughout, one admired the corporate concentration and commitment of the orchestra who responded eloquently to Slatkin’s impassioned direction and interpretation. Perhaps the opening paragraph might have been delivered more forcefully, but the first violins’ statement of the opening theme was poignancy itself. As the movement progressed one was conscious of a gradual building of tension and when the first great climax emerged, with horns howling out the opening motive, the effect was all but overwhelming. The ’Allegro’ section which ensued was characterised by sharp articulation and strutting trumpets heralded more than a sense of militaristic danger.

The great adagio chords, which are like cries of pain (and return in the ’Finale’), were tremendous in their impact and gave way to the cor anglais’s sorrowful melody, hauntingly played by Geoff Browne. The second movement was anything but a light interlude, the skittish wind solos more suggestive of hysteria then light-relief, whilst the momentum of the third was relentless. Here, the trumpet’s interventions, seemingly circus-like, were once again filled with menace and as the movement veered towards its conclusion, thunderous timpani added to the tension. In the fourth movement, there was an extraordinary sense of desolation, with the flutes’ eerie flutter-tonguing suggesting something other-worldly.

The ’Finale’ begins with a perky-seeming melody from the bassoon, but as ever with Shostakovich such moments are tinged with irony and as the movement gathered pace, eventually collapsing onto those huge chords heard earlier, Slatkin ensured we were caught up in the composer’s nightmare world. “All my symphonies are tombstones,” Shostakovich apparently once revealed. This was a remarkable performance, with conductor and orchestra at one in conveying Shostakovich’s bleak desperation and which made one ponder this statement anew. Certainly, the concluding pages contained no hint of comfort or peace. Rarely indeed can the chord of C major have sounded so unsettling.

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