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Bartók, Shostakovich, Stravinsky: Kirill Gerstein (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor) St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 15. 1. 2011 (GPu)

Suite: The Miraculous Mandarin

Shostakovich, Piano Concerto No.2

Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring

Looking at the programme for this concert, there were plenty of patterns and symmetries to be detected. Two Russians – and a non-Russian. Two works based on ballet – and one not. Two works which caused controversies at their first performances – and one that was a good deal less controversial than much of its composer’s work was. Whichever way one looked at it one thing was unmistakable – here were works by three of the major composers of the Twentieth Century.

The score of
The Miraculous Mandarin comes equipped with narrative notes and, in truth, I have always found that for all its power and brilliance the music of Bartók’s suite is inescapably diminished when heard divorced from the stage action it ‘represents’. Still, if it left me slightly unsatisfied for that reason, I was well able to appreciate the vibrancy of this particular performance. The introductory bars (described by Bartók as “an awful clamour, clattering, stampeding, and blowing of horns”) were full of confused menace and troubling accents, an urban dystopia made fully audible. The solo clarinet work throughout was thoroughly persuasive, as dishonestly and snakily seductive as the music requires; the acerbic glissandi of the trombones, the sinuous and unstable waltz of the girl’s dance with the mandarin and the final chase and fight – all were handled with imaginative power and considerable technical panache.

Kirill Gerstein proved an outstanding soloist in the performance of Shostakovich’s
Second Piano Concerto which closed the first half of the concert. Gerstein’s early training in jazz (he moved from Russia to the USA when 14 to continue his jazz studies, the youngest musician ever to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston) fitted him particularly well for the frequently syncopated idiom of this piece. The reading of the concerto by Gerstein and Salonen had real and distinctive charm, fully responsive both to the work’s air of simplicity and its very real sophistication. With its small orchestral forces and its ‘well-behaved’ musical language, the concerto seemed mild-mannered and utterly ‘innocent’ (the last thing Shostakovich ever was) sandwiched between The Miraculous Mandarin and The Rite of Spring! There was splendid wit in the playing of the initial sonata form allegro and the central andante had a lyrical and idyllic charm, art and (seeming) artlessness co-existing to perfection, Gerstein’s playing of the solo part a model of pellucid clarity and Salonen’s direction of the orchestral accompaniment perfectly complementary and full of apt spaciousness. The closing rondo-like allegro was full of youthful sparkle (the piece was, after all, originally written for Maxim Shostakovich, then nineteen), of infectious rhythms which built to a rousing climax. Without ever making the concerto seem in any strict sense neo-classical, Gerstein and Salonen brought out very attractively the way in which the work grows from the music of Mozart and Beethoven. It was a performance which thoroughly deserved the enthusiastic audience response which it received.

After the interval, Esa-Pekka Salonen turned his attention towards a work he has often conducted – Stravinsky’s
Rite of Spring. There was authority to very aspect of the performance, an air of discipline that made one remember at all times the first noun in the work’s title – this was a performance of hieratic dignity and resonance, though it was also an evocative response to the work’s subtitle – “Scenes from Pagan Russia”. It was a performance that breathed the air of inevitability, a reminder of the origins of dramatic art (not least tragedy) in religious ritual. The music’s quality of profoundly integrated continuity was very forcefully articulated. The bassoon solo at the opening was thoroughly redolent of earthy reverence and anticipation and from that point onwards Salonen’s tight control (though the conducting manner is relatively relaxed) of dynamic gradation and rhythmic accent, as well as of orchestral colour, brought out the work’s argument (and this was a performance in which one was at least as conscious of logic as of frenzy) with powerfully purposive clarity. The final climax, when it came, was both terrifying and cathartic.

Rite in particular, but not only that work, was a vivid affirmation of just what a good orchestra the Philharmonia are when on something like top form. Salonen seems often to get their best from them (and perhaps the reverse is true too?). Theirs is a particularly valuable musical partnership, and on this occasion it made them forceful (and subtle) advocates of some fine music in a programme which left behind an audience full of satisfied excitement.

Glyn Pursglove


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