If the graphic design of a concert programme can be said to shape our expectations of the event then the Philharmonia Orchestra's 2012/13 booklet, on which the press verdict "blazing originality" is encircled by red-hot flames, had perhaps set its sights rather high. Thursday's concert, however, did not disappoint. Its explosive selection brought together Igor Stravinsky's suite L'oiseau de feu ("The Firebird", 1919), Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor (1913), Sergei Rachmaninov's The Rock (1893) and Alexander Scriabin's Le poème de l'extase ("The Poem of Ecstasy", 1905–08). At the hands of conductor Lorin Maazel both audience and orchestra were immersed in this invigorating quartet of Russian repertoire.
Stravinsky's suite L'oiseau de feu provided a dazzling opening to the concert. Constructed from the composer's ballet score for the 1910 Ballets Russes Paris season, the suite traces the narrative of Prince Ivan's entrapment in the magical world of Kashchei the Immortal and the enigmatic Firebird that assists his liberation. The 1919 version of the suite was produced for scaled-down orchestral forces in a period of post-war austerity. Yet this has the effect of making Stravinsky's pointillist canvas even more readily perceptible. Maazel clearly took advantage of this, taking care to give definition to the composer's contrapuntal acrobatics and exotic instrumental colours. The sense of allure latent in this ballet, however, was not always brought out in the Philharmonia's performance. Descending chromatic lines suggestive of the mysterious creatures in Kashchei's garden were rendered a little too gracefully for their erotic import to be apprehended. Instead Maazel took more pleasure in setting the stage alight for the "Infernal Dance of Kashchei's Followers".
The young pianist Daniil Trifonov set about conquering Prokofiev's unwieldy Piano Concerto no. 2 for the next event of conflagration. This performance, while a little precarious, certainly had moments of inspired creativity and characterisation. Trifonov struggled to integrate with the orchestra during the first movement. Much of his performance was conducted through expressive bodily gestures, but there was a strange gulf between the look of his finger-on-key virtuosity and the strains of sound exiting the piano frame. For the Scherzo and Intermezzo movements, however, Trifonov captured Prokofiev's youthful precociousness with considerable success. Here, tiptoeing pizzicatti across the orchestra gave the pianist the breathing space he needed to explore the whimsical and the wry with a delicacy of touch that was truly arresting. Having harnessed his performance thus, he was able to carry some of these winsome elements into the whirlwind Finale for a captivating denouement.
Rachmaninov's fantasy for orchestra The Rock was a curious addition to the programme with its air of brooding despondency. Written when the composer was 20, the title takes its cue from a poem by Mikhail Lermontov:
A little golden cloud spent the night
on the breast of the giant crag.
In the morning it flew off early on its way,
merrily playing in the azure sky.
But a moist trace remained
in a crevice of the old crag.
It stood alone, pensively,
and gently weeping in the wilderness.
Anton Chekhov had referenced the same poem in the preface to his story On the Road (1886). On Christmas eve, a middle-aged man meets a young woman travelling back to her father and brothers who rely upon her care. The man, eager for the emancipation of women, watches her depart on Christmas morning with a despairing sense of lost opportunity. Rachmaninov would later inscribe a copy of the score for Chekhov in which he stated that this plot was also the narrative thread behind his composition. With a conflicting assortment of playful and anguished material, the music forms a scintillating portrayal of the bright cloud above the craggy rock, and the embittered traveller encountering the naïve young woman.
For a season that promised "blazing originality", it seemed only fitting to end this programme with Scriabin's Le poème de l'extase. This flamboyant and eccentric work was cast in three sections alluding to the composer's state of self: "His soul in the orgy of love", "The realization of a fantastic dream", and "The glory of his own art". Complete with a ten-page poem by Scriabin, the composition is an almost unbounded expression of creative zeal. Several critics were not taken with the idea, the Daily Advertiser in Boston memorably describing it as "the ecstasy of the too convivial gentleman who thought that the air was filled with green monkeys with crimson eyes and sparkling tails – a kind of ecstasy that is sold in Russia at two roubles a bottle". Nonetheless, this work has continued to bewitch audiences with its erotic energy. Maazel's conducting exposed Scriabin's wild fluctuations between diaphanous and weighty scoring, with thrilling results.
A barnstorming programme of Russian masterworks, forged from the burning embers of the Romantic period by four composers who for the most part couldn't stand the sight of each other.
Stravinsky's Firebird ballet takes Borodin's piquant orientalisms and Rimsky-Korsakov's exotic orchestration to the outer reaches, while Rachmaninov's The Rock feeds directly from the music of his most devoted admirer - Tchaikovsky. Scriabin appears to be sowing the seeds of his own musical destruction in the apocalyptic eruptions of his Poem of Ecstasy, while Prokofiev confirms his status as the 'bad boy' of Russian music with a pianistic whirlwind of super-heated virtuosity.
Southbank Centre: Royal Festival HallBelvedere Road
London Greater London United Kingdom SE1 8XX
Philharmonia Orchestra © Benjamin Eagolvea