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Rachmaninov and Shostakovitch: Hélène Grimaud (piano) Philharmonia Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor) Royal Festival Hall, London. 22. 9.2009 (GD)

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor,  Op,18
Shostakovitch: Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op. 65

Shostakovitch was quite clear regarding the meaning, or effect of his Eighth Symphony. It was, he said, more a musical reflection on the suffering and joys of the Russian people under attack invasion, occupation/ siege  (Leningrad) and mass slaughter by Hitler's 'wehrmacht'. The 'joy' represented is that of the massive effort of resistance by the Russian people, and the decisive  victory of the Red Army over Hitler's fascism. The symphony was written in 1943 after the German surrender at Stalingrad in January of that year. In this context, the Eighth could (and has) been seen as a massive dramatic requiem to the millions of Russian /Slavic people murdered by Hitler. In that sense it has tremendous global, historical significance as a musical monument to a genocide which is, to an extent, still underepresented in the West. Unlike the later 11th and 12th symphonies, there is nothing 'cinematic',or programmatic about the eighth; the contextual significance is framed in a huge and concentrated symphonic structure.

Sadly, I had little sense of that cataclysmic, tragic/heroic resonance tonight. Ashkenazy, who in the past has in the past proved himself to be a distinctive interpreter of Shostakovitch, tonight seemed curiously unable actualise the complex musical, dramatic vicissitudes of the symphony. Throughout the colossal C minor first movement,  there was no sense of sustained development. The opening brooding in the string bass theme sounded tame : from a a central seat in the lower stalls I had difficulty hearing the double-basses.  The grotesque march-like themes of the central fff allegro non troppo sounded rushed and loud rather than grimly sustained: and there was a distinct lack of the rhythmic incisiveness called for. The percussion were merely bashed out, with no degree of dynamic/tonal contrast, and the brass sounded  strident. Throughout the performance,. conductor and orchestra were unable to register the works 'inner' structure of harmonic tension and  dissonance; everything seemed to focus on the surface and the superficial; in old fashioned terms the performance lacked 'depth'  The wonderfully sustained cor anglais cadenza, before the movement’s coda, lacked that rapt, hushed almost haunting tone achieved by older Russian masters like Mravinsky and Kondrashin. All I heard here tonight was an unidiomatic blandness. 

The D flat Allegretto second movement lacked th essential sense of sustained rhythmic thrust, interspersed with outbursts of grotesque parody, and in the third movement E minor Allegro the ostinato, toccata like, motoric rhythms were delivered with no sense of the underlying structure of menace: the tremendous F sharp minor climax just 'happened' with no former expectation of catastrophe. The following passacaglia theme (one of the composer’s most poignant Bach references) simply lacked all sense of hushed suspense; the inner dialectic of tension and questioning hope. The C major finale, with all its paradoxical allusions to peace, tranquillity, pessimism and exhaustion, were all, yet again, rather blandly delivered, with inaudible woodwinds, loud percussion and strident brass, which succeeded in obliterating the diverse string figurations.

The concert opened (15 minutes late!) with a performance of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto which did not find Grimaud at her best. There was plenty of excellent playing, but Grimaud is usually much more than merely 'excellent'. I had the sense that she wasn't really 'in' the work; perhaps she has simply played it too often. She almost came into her own in the rondo finale, with all the essential mercurial touch and sense of contrast. But there was still something missing; maybe to do with certain disparities between her and the conductor?  And again, Ashkenazy and the orchestra, as with the Shostakovitch, seemed peculiarly disengaged. At times I felt there was almost no accord between soloist and conductor; no real sense of dialogue. The famous orchestral opening melody for strings, over the Bach-like repeated tonic pedal initiated by the soloist, sounded peculiarly recessed tonight, particularly in the lower register and on several occasions the horns were flat as well as numerous tonal/figurative inaccuracies in the timpani and percussion. After this disappointing concert I hope soon to hear both soloist and conductor perform in the tradition of  musical inspiration for which they are both rightly famed.

Geoff Diggines

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