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Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Haydn, Shostakovich. Emanuel Ax (piano); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski. Royal Festival Hall, London. 18. 3. 2011 (CC)

Prokofiev: Suite from "The Love for Three Oranges"

Stravinsky: Capriccio for piano and orchestra

Haydn: Piano Concerto in D, HobXVIII:2

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 54

A fascinating mix of composers here, united through a general theme of "Humour in Music". Different forms of humour were manifested, of course, from Prokofiev's pithy and spiky vocabulary through to the playful Papa Haydn (in a piano concerto that really should see the light of day more often).

The Suite from The Love for Three Oranges contained a whole world of emotions, not just humour. Jurowski changed the advertised order so as to conclude with the famous March. Just as memorable as the absurdist moments were the nightmarish sonorities of "Infernal Scene" and the beautiful sound the strings regularly made. This was a polished performance, but one that also included elements of letting go on the part of the players, a performance where discipline met frivolity.

To follow this with the Stravinsky Capriccio was genius. The sonorities could hardly be more different - vibrato-less strings and Neoclassicist tendencies brought a purity to the experience. Ax, who used music, impressed throughout, be it in the Barqoue-inspired decorations or in longer, quasi-Bachian lines. While Ax had disappointed me in Beethoven's "Emperor" concerto in 2005, he seemed far more in his element here. The fast, spiky and gently quirky finale, which verged on Stravinskian circus music at times, was a particular delight.

The finest performance of the evening, though, was Haydn's D major piano concerto, a piece previously favoured by Michelangeli. Wonderful though Ax was, it is amazing to recount that he was actually outclassed by the polish of the opening orchestral exposition, which under Jurowski's baton was deliciously light, fluffy and, most of all, joyous. Ax's articulation was commendably clean; the deceptively simple lines of the central Un poco Adagio made their mark, and Ax found pleasure in Haydn's flights of fantasy. The finale, complete with wonderful bow slapping in the lower strings, completed the treat famously.

Shostakovich's tripartite Sixth Symphony is a tough nut to crack. It begins with an extended Largo. The opening is a long, finely etched line for violins and cellos, powerfully contoured in this instance. Jurowski ensured that a sense of the cumulative was almost tangible. There were some notable orchestral solos from the flute, cor anglais, horn and trumpet, but it was the sense of a huge, bleak landscape that stood out. Play came back to the fore in the finale after a virtuoso central panel - only the final bars of the symphony seemed strangely held back, masking their outrageous nature.

Colin Clarke


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