Apart from the ethnic origin of their composers, the Russian masterworks on the programme of yesterday evening’s concert at the Royal Festival Hall by the Philharmonia orchestra didn’t appear to have a lot in common. The overture to Glinka’s opera Ruslan and Ludmilla goes to the root of traditional Russian culture. In only six minutes, it showcases the heart-thumping rhythm of the Cossack dance and the convoluted romantic folklore of Alexander Pushkin. Paavo Järvi seemed determined to begin the evening on an upbeat mood, driving the orchestra almost to distraction with a speed requiring the ambition of a Flight-of-the-Bumble-Bee challenger. In the blink of an eye, his baton changed from rapid forward jabbing to expansive circular sweeps that smoothed the orchestra into the luscious romantic theme. In between, he gave the woodwinds, especially the flute, plenty of breathing space as well.
It was as if soloist Kirill Gerstein tamed the orchestra into submission in Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto no. 3. Despite making a low-profile entry as required, he set about unleashing dazzling technical proficiency that seemed to overpower the orchestra, the latter only occasionally creeping in with a whimper for most of the first movement, and the substantial cadenza for the piano only reinforced matters. Again, Paavo Järvi gave the woodwinds plenty of room to shine, as when the flute, clarinet and horn sailed into a recapitulation of the opening theme following the cadenza. At times, however, there was a sense of detachment between soloist and orchestra, with either catching up or falling behind the other.
The orchestra began to come into its own in the Intermezzo: Adagio second movement, the winds again leading the charge together with some lush moments from the strings. By contrast, the elusive dreamy solo parts were not quite dreamy enough. Soloist and orchestra fed on each other’s jovial mood and sparkled in moments of wistful nostalgia destined to elicit deep sighs from the audience, and the flute and horn flexed their muscles with great effect. As the pace quickened, soloist and orchestra joined hands to bring the work to a life-affirming and exhilarating finish. Repeated ovation brought the soloist back for an encore – the Etude for the Left Hand by Felix Blumenfeld, a friend of Rachmaninov. Mr Gerstein was so adept that I wondered why he would need to play anything else with two hands.
To Soviet apparatchiks, Shostakovich’s biggest sin might have been daring to challenge conventions of artistic probity. His Symphony No. 5 in D minor is quite possibly atonement for ruffling Stalin’s sensitivities with Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Yet it would be out of character for him to be literal in his apology. As such, there are discernible underlying morsels of irony and defiance discernible to those who keep an open mind. Despite a somewhat tentative opening that lacked a sense of nervous questioning, the Philharmonia’s interpretation was tightly wrought and well structured overall. A combination of superb dynamic control and tempo variation delivered the messages with just the right impact.
After lulling us into a false sense of security with sustained quiescent strings and the gentle flute, the piano broke the tranquillity with pounding low notes, followed by burping low brass in tow. The brief march was blood-curdlingly trenchant, after which the strings changed their tone to one of anguish, made all the more piquant by the piccolo. A near-weeping solo violin was left to hold the fort as the first movement finished.
The Mahlerian Allegretto second movement revolving around the Ländler, replete with jaunty solo violin and flute, began innocently enough, but flashes of grotesque distortion soon crept in, helped by the bassoon, pizzicato strings and the ever disruptive piccolo. The Largo third movement was exemplary in control and understatement, at times dwindling to become nearly inaudible, but the lingering flute and clarinet over shivering strings suggested that tears had indeed been suppressed.
The pace picked up in the final movement as the brass pounded its way into a semblance of triumph, only to be deflated by a short horn lament. The bassoon led the woodwinds and brass in a comeback, paving the way to a last section that seemed to be celebratory but for the persistent staccato strings. From what I could gather, Paavo Järvi stuck more or less to a tempo much like the standard set by Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic, so I suspect Shostakovich would approve.
Disparate Russian works spanning a century, held together by a masterful conductor in Paavo Järvi, certainly made for an exciting evening.