Photo, Andy Paradise

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Royal Albert Hall, London

The Royal Albert Hall can have its own lontano (from a distance), even more so if sitting in certain areas, so whether Ligeti’s Lontano reached the venue’s remotest regions I know not, its long-held, slow-moving, subtly-changing chords in their notes and scoring (large orchestra, no percussion), with a few crescendos, the music becoming ever-more hypnotic and taking us somewhere strange before disappearing from the ear yet leaving something tangible within the silence, managed suspensefully in this well-prepared realisation.

Vasily Petrenko and the RPO went on to give a tailor-made accompaniment to Alexandre Kantorow, his sensitive and poetic introduction to Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto pointing the way to a lyrical reading of this wondrous work, here full of pearly runs, significant silences, persuasively flexible (impromptu-suggesting) tempos, and a wide dynamic range, with the first-movement cadenza (the usual one of the composer’s two) having an ink-still-wet quality, copy left at the artists’ entrance by a hard-of-hearing German gentleman, “To be collected by Monsieur Kantorow”. In the second movement brusque staccato strings were seen off by the gentlest of piano sermons, then a witty and capricious Finale with hard-stick timpani adding to the rhythmic drive. As a well-deserved encore, but perhaps not the best choice, the end of Stravinsky’s Firebird, which despite Kantorow’s best efforts came across as merely bombastic, no doubt the transcription-handiwork of Guido Agosti, once again,

Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony never quite gripped the attention despite detailed rehearsal and excellent playing, for the first and third movements can have their longueurs, and did so here (whereas the great Fifteenth has none), possibly because it seemed that Petrenko was consciously stripping the music of circumstances so that it came across as too reliant on forced fortissimos and noisy percussion (characterful woodwind solos, however) an approach that worked well in the malevolent Scherzo, whether a caricature of Stalin or not, and the wastelands of the third movement were painted chillingly (distinguished horn solos), with an attacca into the Finale (conductor outfoxes the clappers), deeply pensive at the outset, then spring-day frolicking en route to a thundered-out DSCH motif, and a re-energising to get to the finishing post, just a tad tame, not least timpani, however crisp. The rub is the recent issue of a concert performance conducted by Kurt Sanderling that is a totally different matter … for he knew what this Symphony is about and his revelations cast a very long shadow over subsequent accounts.

“… Kurt Sanderling’s concert Shostakovich Ten … started off as engrossing on a first listen and has become even more meaningful since its revelations became steadily apparent, burning into my consciousness. The character-assassination of Stalin (second movement) is uncompromising, and the end of the Symphony might be heard as exhilarating, jumping for joy; yet to me, underneath such hollow appeasement to the State, it comes across as irredeemably tragic. The reason, I suggest, is that Sanderling knew the reality behind the notes. Maybe he shared such knowledge with the New Philharmonia during rehearsals because the players’ searingly intense responses in the concert suggest that they were entirely convinced by and caught up with Sanderling’s insights, going beyond the call of duty and totally inspired for a conductor who was a regular Philharmonia Orchestra guest and whose focus was always entirely on the music (memorable Bruckner, Schubert, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky … and Shostakovich Fifteen three times); he gave no visual clues, each gesture was for the musicians, we were required to listen. For me, Sanderling’s Shostakovich Ten is the most exposing account of it I have ever heard, thankfully with recorded sound that perfectly captures every particular with which to appreciate such indispensable music-making – every note, nuance and dynamic, blend and balance, is made significant and, frankly, life-changing regarding how to perceive this work … Unmissable. Addictive!” (extract from March’s Recording Highlights)