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PROM 69: Rakhmaninov, Piano Concerto
No. 2 in C minor, Shostakovich Symphony No. 8, André Watts
piano, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin, RAH, 10th September 2002
American pianist André Watts returned to the Proms after a break
of 15 years to play Rakhmaninov's popular Second Piano Concerto. This
work has long been associated with the fortiesā film Brief Encounter
and listening to it under Slatkinís baton it certainly sounded like
quintessential film music.
Watts opened the work in a rather heavy, plodding manner and
seemed merely mechanical, going through the motions, with the conductor
and orchestra filling in, like painting-by-numbers, and sounding more
like background muzac. This was the worst performance I have ever encountered
of this over- played concerto, and not nearly brief enough. It was passionless,
soulless and totally anaemic. In the slow movement Wattsí playing was
curiously clinical and unmoving, whilst the woodwind solos were dull
and bland, totally lacking poetry and passion. Watts zoomed through
the last movement as if he had another gig to get to. I legged it before
the pianistís obligatory encore.
The Shostakovich 8th Symphony never ignited. The first movement, marked
Adagio - Allegro non troppo, completely lacked tension and onward thrust.
Slatkinís tempi were slack and he lost the pulsating thread of this
potentially moving movement. Whilst the string playing was rather sedate
and subdued, it lacked grain and grit which are essential ingredients
for the dark Shostakovich symphonic style and sound. The BBC SO strings
are in urgent need of replenishment, and just plain oomph - they seemed
so thin and meagre and starved of sound. The fine Cor Anglais solo which
ended the interminably long movement had a distilled melancholia - and
was the only distinguished and memorable playing of the entire evening.
Shostakovich described the second movement as "a march with elements
of a scherzo". Slatkin obviously thought otherwise and ignored the marshal
element, playing it straight, as he did the third movement which also
utilises a militaristic metaphor as a threatā progressing to an hysterical
climax (a device Mahler had used in his 3rd, 5th and 6th symphonies).
Slatkin totally fudged this, toning down the percussion section at times
when they should have had a nerve-shattering effect, rendering them
instead limp and flaccid.
This work was quite simply under-rehearsed. Instead of his Barbirolliesque
cavortings, Slatkinís energies might have been better deployed getting
more drama out of his players. The woodwind were shrill and coarse,
and the brass were crude and messy. The timpanist might as well have
stayed at home, so noncommittal and at times inaudible were his playing.
The fourth and fifth movements were bland beyond belief and the closing
passages were not only sabotaged by the conductor and apathetic orchestra
but also by a distant mobile phone.
Having the cherished memory of Paavo Berglundís deeply moving account
of the Shostakovich 8th with the London Philharmonic Orchestra played
with a Russian accent (dark and grainy), Slatkinís reading seemed slack
and superficial - a non-event that never happened. Slatkin, as their
Chief Conductor, needs to give the BBC SO a sound-lift to get the Shostakovich
style: they simply cannot play Shostakovich with an English accent:
the result is rather like listening to Edward Heathís ludicrous attempts
to speak French.
An evening to forget.
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