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Tchaikovsky Rachmaninov Sibelius
Philharmonia Orchestra/Jukka-Pekka Saraste/Simon Trpceski piano

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 21 March 2006

Tchaikovsky Overture, Voyevoda
Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2
Sibelius Symphony No.4

A disconcerting concert, in which the ostensible main attraction fell flat.

Swamped by a full sized symphony orchestra on the confined stage of QEH, which is standing in for the Royal Festival Hall during its radical refurbishment, Simon Trpceski played the solo introductory chords of Rachmaninov No.2 sensitively, but thereafter flayed the piano energetically but often to little purpose, as much of his determined activity remained inaudible under the orchestral wash. Had the conductor during rehearsal retreated into the body of the hall to check balance?

Nor was that which did surface as expressive as easily can be, in a concerto that has remained one of my favourites since being captivated by it as a youngster on plum-label 78s which I played on wind-up gramophone again and again* and we remained unmoved and deflated at the end of Trpceski's performance.

However, the audience was roused to ecstatic enthusiasm, which has to be the main point, you should know.

One oddity which might go part way towards explanation? The stage team seemingly forgot to remove a cover from the Steinway's lid. Those few who had attended "Towards a shared conception of the characteristics of guitar sound", Matthias Dammann's brilliant exposition of the mysteries of loudness v. intensity etc at RAM on Monday, will have wondered whether opening the piano lid is for more than letting the sound out?

Before the concerto, a noisy unloved Tchaikovsy overture/tone poem, which unexpectedly improved upon re-acquaintance, its lush orchestration sounding well in the more confined space of QEH, though I still would not seek to hear it again.

Salvation was at hand from Sibelius, his Fourth Symphony (once thought austere and difficult) emerging so strongly in its first bars under the experienced hands of Jukka-Pekka Saraste (tipped as Slatkin's likely successor with the BBCSO) as to sweep away all memories of the indulgent first half of the concert. **

I know few works which compel listening with undivided attention from first bars for cellos to the end as Sibelius 4, with continuous development, without any easy repetitions, even the subtlest of wit in the throw away ending of the second movement. Every entry is clear and there is nothing superfluous. A note of praise for the the clarinettist's aplomb in his perilous flourishes in the finale, which introduces a glockenspiel to telling effect before this great symphony ends soberly on strings alone. Completely riveting and it made the journey to central London worth while after a puzzling first half.

After the concert the audience repaired to the QEH foyer for ritual CD signing (Trpceski's) and they were also invited to buy Sibelius's symphonies (Colin Davis's) instead of either of Saraste's two complete recordings with the Finnish Radio Orchestra, which would have made a more suitable memento of the evening, even if the pundits deem another "the best".

*Moiseiwitsch & LPO/Walter Goehr - released on CD by Appian Publications & Recordings APR 5505

** Paul Driver in the Sunday Times:

- - Sibelius's Fourth Symphony, on the other hand, stands in its modernist austerity alone. The bare textures and stark foreshortening of this pained but wonderfully thought-out structure rarely fail to grip an audience these days, and the Philharmonia Orchestra's Queen Elizabeth Hall rendering, under the Finnish conductor Jukka- Pekka Saraste, was both masterful and hypnotic.

(No mention of Trpceski !)



© Peter Grahame Woolf