Thursday, March 10, 2022

Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Guest Reviewer, Peter Reed

It won’t be Tchaikovsky night in Cardiff on March 18 ( – a pointless and ignorant reaction to the Ukraine crisis that does no-one any favours – but it certainly was Tchaikovsky in this well-attended Philharmonia concert. The blind Japanese virtuoso Nobuyuki Tsujii had to withdraw from playing the Piano Concerto No.1, and the Canadian-Chinese pianist and last year’s Chopin Competition winner Bruce Liu stepped up with the less-frequently programmed Concerto No.2. Whether or not intended, the change was pertinent.

The thirty-nine-year-old Tchaikovsky started work on it while he was staying at his sister’s estate in Ukraine – in a letter to his brother Anatoly he described his time there as a Chekhovian indolent idyll (he spent a lot of time sewing) – and it didn’t need much imagination for the Concerto and the ‘Pathétique’ Symphony, which followed in the second half, to be heard as a commentary on the current Russia-Ukraine war, and the symbolism of the opening piece, Francesca da Rimini, about a family turning on itself (a corrupt man who murders his brother, innocently in love with the former’s wife, also murdered) would not have been lost on anyone. It was a pity that the short address given by the Philharmonia’s President Kira Doherty wasn’t beamed over to Cardiff to pour oil on foolish sensibilities, and we were left in no doubt about the universality of Tchaikovsky’s music by the Orchestra playing the Ukraine national anthem.

And, as it happened, that was the highpoint of a long concert that never quite took off. Once you’ve heard a Francesca that matches the tragic eroticism in Dante’s story of poor Paolo and Francesca, and which spoke to Tchaikovsky as powerfully as Romeo and Juliet, this beautifully played and shaped performance lacked tension, and Rouvali’s tendency to spotlight crucial wind solos from clarinet and flute rather worked against music that easily speaks for itself. The love theme, upon which Tchaikovsky lavished a doomed empathy, became repetitious and hectoring, while the winds of fate were storm- rather than hurricane-force.

The evening’s big attraction was to hear Bruce Liu again. His assured, slightly self-effacing style delivers generously in terms of colour, bravura and natural musical intelligence. And, thrillingly, he takes risks, which suited the eccentricities of Tchaikovsky’s Second Concerto (complete, not always the case given some pianists still use Siloti’s cuts) very well. He took charge of the first movement’s three cadenzas, which combine structure and plenty of display opportunities, with an operatic hauteur that easily got under your skin. Then, to remind us of his Chopin credentials, he drew together the strands of the slow movement – basically a trio with violin (leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay) and cello (Karen Stephenson, who could send you to Cloud Nine playing the telephone directory) – with persuasive subtlety and tenderness, before launching into glittering virtuosity in the relatively brief, ferociously athletic Finale. Liu is a mightily impressive pianist, with bags of character, revealed in his incandescent Nutcracker encore arranged by Earl Wild.

Rouvali was on fine balletic form in the ‘Pathétique’ Symphony, which paid off handsomely in terms of friction-free ensemble, and the opening was fabulously spectral. Yet I missed the surprise element of the eruption into the first movement’s Allegro section, and the amazing black hole Tchaikovsky evokes was not quite the abandon-all-hope moment which determines the work’s outcome. We’ve all heard performances of the ‘Pathétique’ that anticipate the volatility of Shostakovich and Mahler, but Rouvali’s exaggerated rallentandos and over-worked accents sounded contrived, steering things towards indulgent self-pity rather than annihilating despair.

Recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3, Wednesday March 16 @ 7.30 p.m

What Goes Around, Comes Around, by Leonard Slatkin.