Arcadi Volodos was billed to appear in a rare performance
of Prokofievís Second Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 16. A last minute
cancellation meant a change of soloist, however, and it was Nikolai
Demidenko who stepped in. Demidenko has recorded this concerto (with
the London Philharmonic under Lazarev, on Hyperion CDA66858) and so
is no stranger to the perilous demands of this piece. Technically, he
was every bit the equal of these challenges. The (in)famous cadenza
(it takes up a good part of the musical argument of the first movement)
was intense and concentrated: Demidenkoís reading brought out its logic,
and it led logically in to the ensuing brass peroration (although here,
as sometimes elsewhere, one longed for Volodos and wondered just what
he would have done).
Taken on its own terms, though, this remained a special
reading. Demidenko and Svetlanov ensured the Scherzo fizzed along, brimming
with energy; the angular grotesqueries of the Intermezzo came over as
pure Prokofiev. Here Demidenko proved himself capable of much delicacy
and lightness, making the most of the tonal properties of his chosen
The Philharmoniaís accompaniment throughout was a thing
of wonder. There is clearly a special rapport between the Philharmonia
and Svetlanov. Here is a conductor who really understands Prokofievís
striking orchestration: the mysterious shades of the opening proved
the perfect foil for the spiky piano entrance; the wind phrasing of
the central, folk-like section of the finale was exceptionally beautiful.
This close relationship between conductor and orchestra
was clear from the very outset of the concert. Glinkaís overture to
his opera Ruslan and Ludmilla was given furious, punchy treatment.
It was so busy, in fact, that it invoked a Russian Marriage of Figaro,
but nevertheless it was not breathless (the second, lyrical theme was
most affectionately phrased). Most impressive, perhaps, was Svetlanovís
ability to balance the textures carefully, even within fortissimo.
At the other end of the dynamic scale, the opportunity to hear a true
pianissimo was also to be relished.
Despite the attractions of the Prokofiev, it was Svetlanovís
reading of the Rachmaninov Second Symphony that was the true highlight
of the evening. There are recordings by this conductor: Colin Andersonís
note in the programme pointed to Svetlanov and the NHK Symphony Orchestra
on King KICC3019 (available via Tower Japan), although there is a Melodiya
recording from 1964 listed in the catalogue with the Bolshoi Theatre
Orchestra on 74321 40064-2.
Svetlanovís reading is clearly the result of an intimate
knowledge of this score. This performance was at times overwhelming
in its intensity because of, rather than despite, Svetlanovís continual
refusal to over-sentimentalise. The Adagio, in particular, benefited
from this approach. It was superbly paced (as was the entire symphony)
so that the climax was overwhelming, a true culmination of what had
preceded it. The Philharmonia strings exhibited a glowing warmth in
response to Svetlanovís effortless ebb and flow. Right from the start
of the piece, it was clear the orchestra was giving its all, from the
mysterious opening on lower strings to the faultlessly together wind.
The brass excelled, particularly in the Allegro molto. The finale was
truly inspiring as well as inspired, often jubilant in manner.
The whole concert acted as a reminder that the Philharmonia
really is a great orchestra and we can count ourselves privileged to
have them at the South Bank. Their collaboration with Svetlanov is a
particular cause for celebration.