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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Stravinsky: François-Frédéric Guy, piano, Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 3.11.2005 (TJH)



Mussorgsky – Night on the Bare Mountain

Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor

Stravinsky – The Firebird (complete ballet)



I was a teensy bit sceptical about the programme for this concert.  Not about the musical line-up – an all-Russian concert is after all the sort of thing the Philharmonia excels at – but about whether it was physically possible to cram enough players into the tiny Queen Elizabeth Hall to give Stravinsky’s Firebird in its original 1910 version, as promised.  Quadruple woodwind, offstage brass, celesta, xylophone, glockenspiel, piano, three harps. . . it was going to be one hell of a tight squeeze in a venue more used to hosting string quartets and mid-sized ensembles.  So I brought along a list of the instrumentation and did a headcount.

I couldn’t be absolutely sure, in the way one cannot be sure how many snowflakes are in a snowstorm, but – apart from one harp – everyone seemed to be present and correct.  They even managed to find room for conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, though he had to jostle more than a few elbows to get to his platform.  Once there, of course, his conducting was typically first-rate.  The famous, subsonic rumble which opens the work had a strangely melancholic air to it; it brightened only when the Firebird itself appeared, bringing with it some virtuosic playing from the strings, who must have had to keep a constant eye out for their neighbours’ dangerously proximate bow-arms.  But it was at the first interruption by the offstage brass – three trumpets and four tubas sounding a klaxon call from the rear of the auditorium – that this Firebird really took flight.  The build-up to the demonic Katschei’s first appearance was truly thrilling: the sound of the massive orchestra may have been almost deafening in the tiny QEH, but every strand of sound was clearly audible and carefully delineated by Salonen and his players.

The only real problem with this unexpurgated Firebird was that it rather outstayed its welcome, a common problem that illustrates just what good sense Stravinsky had when he recycled its best numbers into the more satisfying, and more popular, suites of 1919 and 1945.  The same good sense cannot be discerned in Rimsky-Korsakov’s decision to ‘improve’ Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain, however: in ‘tidying-up’ Mussorgsky’s distinctly rough-hewn orchestration, he robbed the work of much of its unsettling atmosphere.  Salonen showed just how much more interesting the original was, even as a rather brisk opener; but nice though it was to hear this less familiar version, the QEH acoustic proved ultimately unsuitable; Night on a Bare Mountain is all about its creepy ambiance and spooky apparitions, both of which were effectively neutered in this venue.

At any rate, the real treat of the evening was sandwiched between these two fiery favourites.  Sergei Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto is not nearly as well-known as the famous Third, and the reason for this is not hard to discern.  Just ten minutes into the temperamental first movement comes one of the most hair-raising, barnstorming, finger-twisting cadenzas in all of the literature, a bevy of whirling arpeggios and chaotic dissonances which even Prokofiev found a challenge to perform.  Thursday’s pianist – the promising young Frenchman François-Frédéric Guy – had just the mildest hint of panic in his eyes as he approached this musical gauntlet, but he proved a worthy adversary to Prokofiev’s demonic inspiration, carrying off his soloist’s role with aplomb.  Although his playing was perhaps a little too refined for the spiky asceticism Prokofiev demands, Guy nonetheless found a good balance between modernity and slushy post-Romanticism, bringing out heaps of detail in the process.  After a particularly fiendish passage later in the work, he could be glimpsed lifting his hands from the keyboard in a slightly camp flourish, like a more elegant, less well-fed version of Liberace. He looked like nothing so much as a footballer celebrating a particularly satisfying goal: precisely what his performance was.



Tristan Jakob-Hoff



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