Thursday, 24 January 2008

Prokofiev and Roussel, Kissin/Philharmonia/Ashkenazy, 24 January 2008

Royal Festival Hall

Roussel – Bacchus et Ariane: Suite no.1
Prokofiev – Piano Concerto no.3 in C major, Op.26
Prokofiev – Symphony no.6 in E flat minor, Op.111

Evgeny Kissin (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor)

Prokofiev greatly admired the music of Albert Roussel, and one could hear why in this first suite from the ballet Bacchus et Ariane. Roussel exhibits a splendid command of the orchestra, a sharp ear for rhythm, and a typically Gallic lack of sentimentality. Indeed, there were passages one might have been forgiven for attributing to the Parisian Prokofiev of the 1920s. The Fiery Angel and Le pas d’acier sprang to mind. Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia gave a good account of this suite. There was always a clear sense of the music’s direction and the dances were well characterised. The Stravinskian influence from The Rite of Spring was apparent at the moment when Theseus’s men rush at Bacchus, although Roussel never sounds quite so primitivist. A greater variety of orchestral colour would have benefited the performance; this is not Ravel, but there is some gorgeous orchestration nevertheless. However, the audience would still have had a good sense of the music and its character.

Evgeny Kissin joined the orchestra for Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. His was a towering reading of what is probably the most popular of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos. The music suits Kissin perfectly, providing a great opportunity not only to showcase his phenomenal technique, but also for the various aspects of his individual sonority to shine through. His tone can melt as well as stab, and never loses its strikingly mature roundedness. Especially noteworthy was the careful weighting of each chord, however frenetic the context, so that even when Prokofiev is at his most percussive, every note is still made to tell. This is a far rarer gift than one might imagine. It clearly helped to have a conductor with intimate knowledge of the score under his fingers. Ashkenazy’s direction was always sure and was estimably synchronised with the soloist. An especially noteworthy instance was the third movement’s perfect alignment between the piano, percussion, and con legno strings. Elsewhere, the strings sometimes sounded a little thin, overshadowed by the fine contributions of the duly grotesque – where necessary – woodwind and the powerful brass.

Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony is a more sombre work than its immediate predecessor, the Fifth, and arguably the greater of these two great ‘war symphonies’. Ashkenazy, however, made it sound closer to the more triumphal Fifth than I can previously recall. The strange combination of darkness and other-worldliness that characterises the first movement was never made quite to tell as it should, nor was the driving sense of purpose that should once and for all give the lie to claims that Prokofiev was not a true symphonist. Songfulness replaced threnody in the second movement Largo: not unattractive in itself, but by the same token mistaking what seems to me to be the predominant quality of the movement. Ashkenazy’s direction here sometimes had a tendency to meander, where clarity and implacability of purpose should be all. Indeed, the brooding quality of dark tragedy was short-changed throughout, with the consequence that the masterly handled – at least in isolation – final explosion at the end of the otherwise almost carefree third movement seemed to come almost from nowhere, and lost its cyclical sense.

Ashkenazy’s reading sounded oddly like a work very much in progress, as if the symphony were new to him, which of course it is not. Once again, the woodwind and brass – trumpets and horns with wonderfully ‘Russian’ vibrato on occasion – outshone the strings. The 'cellos in particular sounded surprisingly thin, worlds apart from Mravinsky’s Leningrad Philharmonic, who premiered the work in 1947. Such weakness was not evenly spread throughout the section, for the violins on occasion at least captured an authentic Prokofiev bitter-sweetness, and the double basses impressed throughout. The latter, however, only served to highlight what was lacking above.