Dima Slobodeniouk is a conductor new to me and on the evidence of this concert, certainly a name to look out for. With excellent playing from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and an interesting programme of less familiar works by familiar composers, this made for an exhilarating musical experience.

Dima Slobodeniouk
© Yanan Li

The First Piano Concerto by Béla Bartók that opened proceedings, is the least often played of the composer's three works in that form. When it was first performed in 1927 it was considered to be ugly and hard-edged. Hearing it in this dynamic performance by Martin Helmchen, the impression was more of robust humour and playfulness, utilising folk-inspired melodies and rhythms to build up excitement.

The opening movement is a headlong dash using much of the large orchestra for most of the time. However, the piano writing, mostly percussive in style, never felt overwhelmed by the forces that surrounded it. Helmchen presented his highly virtuoso piano part with calmness and a sure technique so that the piano never sounded harsh or abrasive. The slow central movement is one of the composers ‘night music’ pieces. It is a slow quiet march – disconcertingly, mostly in 3/4 time. The string section and brass are silent, so the dialogue is between the soloist, percussion and woodwinds. It has the potential for sounding sinister, but in this performance, which didn’t over-exaggerate the dramatic touches and stuck to a good fast tempo, it sounded wryly humorous. In the fast and furious finale, the fun continued, Helmchen again finding the right balance between forcefulness, clarity and musicality. Slobodeniouk and the RSPO ideally supported him in terms of balance, controlled rubato and rhythmic accuracy.

Martin Helmchen, Dima Slobodeniouk and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
© Yanan Li

Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony, written in the early 1950s under pressure from Soviet authorities to write accessible and positive music, is a misunderstood work. The assumption that its simplicity is a falling off of musical inspiration at the end of the composer’s life, or that its directness of utterance imposed by the state makes it less valid as a work of art, couldn’t be further from the truth. As demonstrated in this sensitive and well-paced performance, it should be considered one of the most beautiful and touching of 20th-century symphonic works.

That it remains rarely played – the RSPO last played it in 1955 – is a mystery, especially as it contains one of the most beautiful of Prokofiev’s many extraordinary melodies. As a beacon of light in the modest first movement, it returns as the climactic moment in the finale. The waltzing second movement, not unlike Ravel's great balletic La Valse (except that it ends in a blaze of glory rather an apocalyptic vision), is hugely attractive in itself and was projected splendidly here. The touching, faltering slow movement was played with sensitivity, relished by the woodwinds in their solos and affectionately shaped. The finale carries the most dramatic and emotional weight, its playful themes tossed around the orchestra with glee. However, for the first time there seems to be dark shapes in the shadows, which are eventually swept aside by the wonderful tune from the first movement in full Technicolor. The work comes to a close, however, in an otherworldly realm of clattering percussion and tolling bell-like brass. A committed and ultimately moving performance of a work of gentleness and charm that should be heard more often in the concert hall.

This performance was reviewed from the KonserthusetPlay video stream

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