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Mussorgsky, Grieg and Shostakovich: Boris Giltburg (piano) Philharmonia Orchestra,  Vasily Petrenko (conductor) Royal Festival Hall, London 12.11.2009 (GD)

Mussorgsky (arr.Rimsky Korsakov): 'Night on a Bare Mountain'
: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16
: Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47

I was hoping that an innovative young Russian conductor like Petrenko would opt for Mussorgsy's own 1867 version of 'St John's Night on the bare Bare Mountain' as it was originally entitled by the composer. Of course Rimsky's re-orchestration (re-composition) of the work is a fine accomplishment in its own right, which has been and still is, mostly used in standard concert renditions. But Rimsky transformed it into more of a Russian orchestral show piece and the Mussorgsky original is far from that: it is much more grotesque  and menacing in its stark dissonances with more trenchantly grainy and harsh orchestration, almost anticipating Stravinsky in places. As it was,  Petrenko gave a finely contoured reading of the Rimsky version.  The opening B minor stalking and ominous rhythmic figure in the basses didn't quite 'sound' as they should tonight however and in fact, throughout the whole concert there was a certain lack of thrust and weight,  particularly in celli and basses and a tendency towards stridency particularly in the violins at  top register. Unfortunately too, Petrenko deployed the erroneous non-antiphonal placement of first and second violins tonight. But he also achieved some beautifully veiled string phrasing in the work's poignantly 'cool-down' coda after its satanic climax.

In the Grieg concerto, which at one time was a real concert 'war-horse', Giltburg deployed  plenty of full-toned pianism in the grand style, although never really achieving the magisterial effect in the manner of say Arrau or Gilels. In the first movement,  rather than playing in dialogue with the conductor and orchestra, Giltburg frequently veered off into a kind of micro-cadenza of pianistic indulgence, with lots of excessive pedalling, but no real coherence in terms of the concerto's structure of exchange and contrast happening within a unified narrative. In the short 'adagio' soloist and conductor  again seemed to be at odds with each other; the one going off on his own course, the other attempting a semblance of structural unity:here Grieg's chromatic harmony mostly failed to register. The final 'allegro' in 'marcato' march rhythm, though still not always together in terms of dialogue between soloist and orchestra, did register a degree of old fashioned concerto exhuberance with Giltburg pounding away at the D minor rhythms in the allegro section taken from Norwegian dance/folk themes. Petrenko incorporated the lyrical A major mid-section theme with great skill, ensuring  that its tutti restatement in  the concerto's coda matched the initial tempo, thus avoiding any degree of sensational bombast. Throughout this movement,  Grieg's 'Hall of the Mountain King's' rhythms were well realised although I did feel that a  tighter check on the timpnaist's zeal would not have gone amiss; his playing becoming ludicrously loud towards and throughout the coda.

Petrenko has recently recorded the Shostakovich 5th for Naxos with his own Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Although it received generally good reviews,  it was also criticised by some for being too slow. Tonight's performance was also measured, but in a sustained and intense manner in which the music never dragged or sagged. Petrenko was generally rather quicker that in the recorded performance and there was an added sense of movement and forward drive permeating the work as a whole, which payed  off magnificently in the symphony's rousing coda. Commendably too, Petrenko treated the symphony completely in its own terms, as a symphony, without ever alluding to any kind of extra-musical conjecture; speculative and often downright false claims to this political meaning or that,   which have plagued -  and continue to plague -  the works imputed 'meaning'. Very few commentators indeed seem to have accepted that Shostakovich was simply writing a D minor symphony following a basic 'classical' form.

It was obvious right from the D minor opening motives that Petrenko had spent considerable time and concentration in rehearsing the work. I don't think I have ever heard such a sustained reflective and brooding quality in this long opening meditation; here, as in the 'Largo' third movement, Petrenko and the orchestra achieved a real pp and ppp, especially in the strings. The later military sounding march music was well paced and rhythmically well defined, never sounding loud or raucous, and only reaching an ff when the march together with the opening theme are  stated in the D minor recapitulation. The over zealous timpani contributions mentioned earlier, were modified by the conductor; reined in so to speak,  to integrate with the superbly achieved symphonic balance and harmonic texture.

The second movement lรคndler-like theme in 3/4 rhythm was well accented as were the Russian folk theme inflections in the 'quasi trio' section. But, again  I would have welcomed extra coarse grained thrust in the lower strings. The 'Largo' emerged as a great musical arch, hushed and intense, slow in real terms  but never sounding slow in its sustained unfolding. I missed the antiphonal effects for divided violins that this movement offers of course, but this was still a superb achievement.

Petrenko reminded us that the 'Allegro non troppo' finale is in fact very skilfully related to the rest of the symphony; the largo's main theme recast in the modulations of D minor/C minor in the sustained pp just before the work's triumphant conclusion.  The coda itself, those D major repeated chords in brass and percussion, had a more ominous and darkly menacing quality than  usual.  There was nothing 'hollow' or 'banal' here and and outside of the phantasy illusions of those who insist  that the passage represents some extra-musical critical parody of Stalinist military bombast, there is absolutely no de facto evidence that Shostakovich ever intended this. Tonight, Petrenko successfully reformulated/ re-situated the work as a great Russian/modern symphony:  a true  symphony in its own terms with any affective meaning existing solely within its music.

Geoff Diggines

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