Saturday, September 25, 2021

Berliner Philharmonie, Herbert-von-Karajan-Straße, Berlin

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

An audience of 2,000 (masked). Orchestra at full size (antiphonal violins and violas). Tugan Sokhiev’s return to public-concert-giving since before the pandemic. Opening the programme a premiere for the Berliner Philharmoniker: Rimsky-Korsakov’s folkloristic, repetitively motivic, will-‘o-the-wisp, beautifully rounded-off Overture to The Tsar’s Bride (1898), a historical verse-drama in four Acts set in 1572 during the time of Ivan the Terrible. A repertory standard in Russia, deliciously balanced. To follow, the 1917 revision of Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto – student ideas and Grieg shadows reviewed from a grown-up standpoint. “It’s really good now”, its author believed, “all the youthful freshness is there, and yet it plays itself so much more easily.” (America, sadly, Horowitz even, didn’t want to know.) Predictably, Sokhiev and orchestra were up for the challenge. Nikolai Lugansky, however, proved icily detached, more emotionally distanced than usual, preoccupied with light-fingered mechanical proficiency. A job to be done seemed the disinterested message. One litmus test of this work is the Finale’s E-flat Andante ma non troppo episode. So many pianists these days toss off its roulades like some kind of paste jewellery (not though the young Pletnev, who found the dream) that I’ve come to wonder how many have ever actually bothered to listen to how Rachmaninov, in his 1939/40 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Ormandy, succeeded in near-improvising these ‘simple’ notes yet with cut-glass pointing and wistful narrative uppermost? A late addition, absent from the original version (where their orchestral tune, appearing in D-major, is subsequently accorded an apotheosising role), they’re not merely decoration, they’re thematically essential. Lugansky’s glib ordinariness was disheartening. For encore, Rachmaninov’s Lilacs, passingly pleasant.

Premiered in Paris the same year this Concerto was conceived (1891), Chausson’s three-movement B-flat Symphony, a significant statement, doesn’t get much exposure, striking advocates notwithstanding. The last time the Berliners played it was in 1973. Sokhiev has a passion for the music, though he cautions against over-analysing its cyclic connections and Wagnerian/Franckian influences, preferring us rather to live it through its senses and sounds. Music Director of the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse (since 2008) and the Bolshoi Theatre (since 2014), he’s a multi-lingual Russian (Ossetian to be exact) steeped in French culture and the French style. The consummate professional. Hands only, no baton, charismatically in command, he sculpted and structured an organic, cumulatively magnificent performance, by turn epic, noble and in the end sublimely mellow (for all its grand moments and chorales, its swelling surges, this is a score that finishes piano), each department of the orchestra excelling, particularly the brass, bronzed rather than brazen in timbre.

Hearing it afresh, reminded of pages closed for too long, took me back. Twenty-five years ago this month, I was in the Meurthe-et-Moselle department of eastern France, producing an album for Naxos. Jérôme Kaltenbach, Laurent Korcia, the Orchestre Symphonique et Lyrique de Nancy. Four days, an al fresco lunch or two, rain. Salle Poirel. Chausson’s VivianePoème, Symphony. Still in the catalogue. Memories.