Beginning with a work sprung from the minds of not one, but two great Russian composers, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Andrew Litton opened their latest distinctly Slavic programme at the Southbank Centre with Rimsky-Korsakov's revised version of Mussorgky's Night on Bare Mountain. The whining whirl of violins, reminiscent of a fly stuck in a circle, buzzed agitatedly into life, sweeping glissandi dragging up and down with a forceful gravitational pull; brass fanfares rang ominously, dark and foreboding; xylophone and strings coalesced into a harrowing rattle, as chilling as the knocking of a clave on a ribcage. From the first note to the last, the desperation of such a bleak landscape was painted incredibly vividly by the orchestra. There is always a risk with such a "popular" piece of classical music that the essence of it will be undermined as soon as a recognisable passage emerges, but the intensity of the portrayal was so astoundingly gripping that it swept any thematic preoccupations away and folded them into the very corners of the room.
After this stunning opening to the programme came Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor, a monumental feast of full-bodied virtuosity for both the orchestra and pianist. The first movement disappointingly did not entirely live up to this; while played musically and technically fluently by orchestra and soloist alike, pianist Natasha Paremski's tone lacked a sense of solidity and grandeur. All the technical wizardry was handled masterfully, passagework spun under her fingers like delicate lace, but for all the technical finesse, the performance lacked real body and richness of sound. Sitting twelve rows from the front, I could barely hear the piano at times even when it was playing solo: I can scarcely imagine how frustrating it would have been to the audience at the back of the hall. The second movement was markedly better – the mellifluous swelling of the orchestra and the sweet yet assured tone of the piano combined beautifully in the beginning, the rambunctious outbursts in the solo part later completely under control yet never unexciting. The third movement was also bursting with furious agitation and excitement, though once again, more projection and depth of tone was needed to fill the hall.
Paremski then returned after rapturous applause to play the Rachmaninov C minor Étude-Tableau, Op. 33 no. 3 as an encore: there was clearly a great amount of feeling in the interpretation, but the pedalling was at times a little blurred and, once again, it simply needed to be bigger. However, the delicacy of the tone in the upper register was gorgeous and intimate, and would have been simply perfect in a setting the size of the Purcell Room; in the Royal Festival Hall, I fear it was probably swallowed by the space and did not reach anybody sitting further than halfway back, which is a real shame.
The final item on the programme was Shostakovich's Symphony no. 5, modern warhorse of the symphonic repertoire. The stark opening leaps ricocheted from side to side with vehement indignation, violins wrestling with cellos for the spotlight. The violent twang of the piano's bass register shook the brass with a brash, abrasive awakening, the orchestra racking up the tension, getting more and more animated as Litton wound them into frenzy like a clockwork toy, waving his arms and physically jumping with the sheer magnitude of his movements. The entire venue seemed to pulse as the snare drum snickered into action, strings sneering maliciously, scaling up and down with shrill pointedness. The second movement provided brief relief with a waltz parody, snippets of drum rolls and blaring trumpets reminiscent of the first movement. The second theme, passed from violin to flute to the rest of the orchestra, seemed to mock as if laughing, the material handled sensitively and inflected with vocal precision. The third movement moved with gravity, repressed sorrow bursting through the seams of this truly touching account of such an excruciatingly tortured piece of art. The final movement resounded with tainted triumph, a dark undertone permeating the otherwise exuberant bound to the finish line.
Shostakovich came under fire for his own hot-blooded and disordered music, which attacked the Russian regime. In the Fifth Symphony he toned down this style, finding new, subtle ways of satirising the state.
These fascinating works frame the ravishing First Piano Concerto by Tchaikovsky, which boasts one of the most famous of all opening themes.
Southbank Centre: Royal Festival HallBelvedere Road
London Greater London United Kingdom SE1 8XX
Andrew Litton © Danny Turner