The ritual is by now familiar to me. I took my seat a few rows back from the front, settled in and took down the names of some players. The hall, smelling faintly of gravy, gradually filled with an eager audience, and the orchestra tuned their instruments with ears fixed on the most minute discrepancies of tone above the murmur of the crowd fumbling to their seats. When all was quite ready, the conductor for the evening, Mikhail Tartarnikov, took to the stage and set in motion the first piece of the evening.
Much like the second piece of the evening, Khachaturian’s ‘Adagio’ from Spartacus is an example of an uncommonly romantic theme to emerge from the Soviet Union. The interplay of oboe and flute is what I like to consider the dialogue between Spartacus and Phrygia, as they dance in a rare moment of freedom and peace during the ballet. The principle voice that leads the melody, that of the oboe, was played beautifully by Edward Kay. The responding voices of the flutes, namely Anna Pyne and Rebecca Carson, were sublime throughout, lending the exchange an extraordinary depth. The entire orchestra, most notably the first violins led as always by Amyn Merchant, played with emotion and vivacity. Khachaturian’s liquid melody seemed to pour from the stage, with Tartarnikov’s fluid movements and careful control helping to convey the passion of the piece. It was a fabulous and emotional rendition that showcased the very best the BSO has to offer, a perfect way to open the evening.
I must admit, I have never been an admirer of either the first or third movements of Shostakovich’s 2nd Piano Concerto. The first movement begins almost as an echo of that facile tune with which the piece shares an objective, written as it was to celebrate the 19th birthday of his son, Maxim. After this, it blends into something that, were it not for the feverish virtuosity of the piano announcing it as something more serious, would be entirely at home on the soundtrack of Toy Story. This is no bad thing in itself: I adore film music. But it isn’t long before the tune dissolves into a flaccid Soviet romp that almost amounts to a parody of itself. The third movement is much of the same. The second movement, however, is something else entirely. Along with the ‘Adagio’ of Spartacus, it makes up the core of the evening’s theme of ‘passion’. Enduring the surrounding movements to experience the second is, to my mind, entirely worthwhile. Like a slice of the most gorgeous cured ham stuffed between two slices of stale, mouldering bread, the second movement neutralises the vices of its company.
So, at the close of the Spartacus and after a short delay to bring on the Fazioli piano, a break from the usual sight of a Steinway, Boris Giltburg took to the stage to bring the concerto to life. During the second movement, he played with remarkable sensitivity and did the utmost justice to the most delicate of melodies. During the first and third movements, he played with vigour and brilliance in the demanding technical passages. His playing drew zealous cries from the crowd for an encore, which he granted. Garbed in his silk top, he took on the silhouette of a deranged organist during the additional piece. His stool acted more as a temporary crutch than a perch, as he lurched forwards and backwards like a piston. His playing was a marvel – fast and precise, ambitious and impassioned. His fingers seemed everywhere at once, while the music was curiously absent.
Escaping the spectre of the Soviet Union, the evening concluded by returning to the Romantic period. The fifth symphony of Tchaikovsky is an amalgamation of themes and styles drawn from the corners of his other works. The third movement is my personal favourite, echoing the wonderful lightness and grace of his ballets, and providing to my mind more of a sense of coherence than the surrounding movements. The first and final movements are somewhat more discordant and aggressive. During the second movement a fellow concert-goer immediately to my right was lulled so completely by the soft stirrings of the first half of the piece that he couldn’t help falling into a remarkably robust slumber. This was broken some time later when, as though peeved by his inattentiveness, the orchestra struck out at a clashing moment in the fourth and final movement. Such was the violence of his sudden awakening that several inquiries as to his immediate health were conveyed through me by particularly concerned audience members. This episode, it should be urgently clarified, is a reflection on the soothing qualities of Tchaikovsky’s music, and not on the wonderful playing of the orchestra. The concert was undoubtedly one of the best so far this season, and I look forward to covering ‘Heroes & Monsters’ in a few weeks.
– Thomas Gordon-Colebrooke
*Images courtesy of bsolive.com.