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Review of Philharmonia Orchestra: Sibelius, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky

On Friday evening The Corn Exchange, in the second of this season’s Boldfield Orchestral Series of concerts, welcomed the Philharmonia Orchestra, its Conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali, and celebrated Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky for a programme of works by Sibelius, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky.

Rouvali, Principal Finnish Conductor Designate of the Philharmonia, will next year succeed his fellow Finn, Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, who appeared with the orchestra at The Corn Exchange last May.

Boldfield Orchestral Series of concerts, welcomed the Philharmonia Orchestra Picture: istock.com.
Boldfield Orchestral Series of concerts, welcomed the Philharmonia Orchestra Picture: istock.com.

The concert appropriately began with one of the four tone poems of Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen Suite, Op.22, Lemminkäinen’s Return.

Sibelius drew his inspiration from the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, and this, albeit brief, opening composition would immediately showcase the Philharmonia’s range and power as it progressed from a slow, haunting introduction on the woodwind through an urgent development on the strings to a tremendous crescendo involving the orchestra’s talented brass section.

Then followed one of the most challenging of all piano concertos, Prokofiev’s 2nd in G minor. If Rachmaninov’s 3rd is commonly regarded as the classical concert pianist’s Waterloo, then Prokofiev’s must surely be its equal or come a very close second.

Rachmaninov, as the story goes, used to fortify himself with a stiff drink before confronting the last of his own Paganini Variations, and Prokofiev’s 2nd whose difficulties even its composer found formidable is avoided by many pianists for the same reason.

The tall authoritative figure of Nikolai Lugansky inspired confidence, however. One of his teachers had been no less than Tatiana Nikoleyeva, the friend of Shostakovich, who had premiered the composer’s 24 Preludes and Fugues.

Prokofiev’s 2nd is a wonderful piano concerto. The first movement’s slightly eerie opening builds towards a lengthy, almost overpowering, piano cadenza, leading straight into a short scherzo whose merciless, unrelenting pace demands the utmost stamina and virtuosity from the soloist.

The piano with sweeps of cascading notes intervenes on the brutal, goose-stepping march of the third movement, until the fourth, with its very pronounced Russian folk melody reaches a high octane and tempestuous conclusion.

Nicolai Lugansky was completely unfazed by what this concerto was requiring him to do, demonstrating with ease the instrument’s most percussive as well as its most tender and lyrical capabilities. It was an inspiring performance from the Russian virtuoso.

Excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Swan Lake, followed the interval. This music is so well known, from masterpieces such as the opening Valse from Act 1 and Dance of the cygnets from Act 2. But to listen to the ballet as an orchestral suite is to be able to focus on the beauty and creativity of so many other, perhaps less prominent, movements. This orchestra under its outstanding leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, enabled us to do so.

There were, for example, some lovely trumpet contributions to the Waltz, as well as to the Neapolitan Dance, while the waltz itself, like the Strauss Blue Danube, has multiple variations, all of which were wonderfully evoked by Matias Rouvali who clearly (who doesn’t?) adores the work. The music seemed to flow through his very physique as he dismissed each completed movement with some elegant gestures of his hands.

To say that the Philharmonia delivered a benchmark performance of this immortal music would be an understatement. The words of composer and pianist, Magnus Lindberg (also Finnish) came to mind: ‘There’s no real equivalent for the mental and physical energy you get from an orchestra playing at its optimum level, and creating its own collective “sound image”. In the Finale the Philharmonia showed that it had this in spades.

Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen Suite, although we didn’t hear it on Friday, includes The Swan of Tuonela; The programme noted that the sorceress queen, Louhi, ‘challenges Lemminkäinen to a series of tasks, including killing the swan’. The dying swan of Tchaikovsky thus, one might say, brought Friday evening’s memorable concert to a satisfyingly rounded conclusion.

The Philharmonia Orchestra will be back, this time under Vladimir Ashkenazy, with Grieg, Brahms and Dvořák on Saturday 30 November. An occasion definitely not to be missed.


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