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Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Bernstein and Revueltas: Nikolai Lugansky (pno) Philharmonia Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor) Queen Elizabeth Hall 23.2.2006 (GD)

Shostakovich, Festive Overture,
Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No3 in C,
Bernstein, Symphonic Dances from West Side Story,
Revueltas, Sensemaya


Shostakovich was a most practical composer. He could produce all kinds of music to suit all kinds of commissions, and was similar to Mozart in this respect. The 'Festive Overture' was a Soviet commission to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the October Revolution and is a brilliantly extrovert, almost virtuoso piece for a huge orchestra. Gustavo Dudamel, a young Venezualian conductor, conducted the piece with great verve, although I was slightly disconcerted by a rhythmic inaccuracy in the opening brass fanfare, the piece was completed brilliantly.

The transfer of all major South Bank concerts to the Queen Elizabeth Hall has its problems, not least in the acoustics. The hall was never designed for such large forces and consequently the acoustic saturation results in congested sound and all kinds of distortions. I could not hear certain important woodwind configurations at tutti passages and many of the copious percussion contributions were lost to the ear.

The acoustic problems did not improve in the Prokofiev concerto. Prokofiev creates a particularly magical, translucent sound world in this piece with delicate gossamer string and woodwind configurations juxtaposed with more truculent piano and brass interjections. A great deal of this was simply obscured, occluded in the indistinct wash of sound. I am sure that Lugansky's solo part was well delivered but it was often overlaid by the distorted orchestral texture.

Dudamel failed to structure the concerto's evocative second movement (Theme and Variations) in a way that encouraged a dialogue between orchestra and piano. This felt more like a run-through than a finished performance with little attention paid to thematic linkage either within the movement itself or to the concerto as a whole. The Allegro ma non Troppo did round off the performance brilliantly however, even though conductor and soloist were sometimes out of step with each other and despite the fact that tempo wavered too much to sustain the composer's marking.

Bernstein incorporated a whole range of influences into his West Side Story Symphonic Dances, from jazz and Latin American dance, as well as from other composers like Gerswin, Copeland and Berlioz. Dudamel was obviously more at home in this delightful music, understanding the range of cross-references and humorous inflections in the music very well. Despite seeming hardly to look at the conductor the  Philharmonia appeared to enjoy the piece although I did notice a rather strident edge to the full string brio passage in the 'meeting scene', Meno mosso, and could not be sure whether or not this was another acoustic fault or a characteristic of the Philharmonia strings in general. These are certainly not the strings from Walter Legge's Philharmonia days: the name may be the same but Legge's was a totally different orchestra.

Dudamel rounded off this colourful concert with a short, but interesting piece by the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas who died in 1940.  He deserves to be heard more having composed some very compelling chamber and vocal music influenced by the music of his native Mexico aby contemporary Russian music (especially Shotakovich and Stravinsky) and also by experiments in atonal music of the time. 'Sensemaya' is a concentrated ostinato rhythmic dance piece for a large orchestra. Its complex, varied ostinato metres emanate mostly from the bass register, with plenty of resonant contributions from the double-basses, lower brass, contra-bassoons, clarinets and lower percussion.

Dudamel articulated the piece with great conviction and the Philharmonia responded with enthusiasm. Here acoustic problems felt not quite so damaging - probably because of the emphasised lower register. The ostinato dance rhythms climaxed to a Dionysiac frenzy leaving me anxious to see the score!

Geoff Diggines

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