With a programme containing works by Balakirev, Khachaturian and Kalinnikov, it was clear from the start that this evening’s concert would be an adventurous affair. Sometimes taking a gamble with programming pays off and makes for memorable evenings, but sometimes, as in tonight’s case, even fantastic performances cannot make up for the flaws in the music played. The London Philharmonic was joined by pianist Marc-André Hamelin as Omso Vänskä guided them through this tough repertoire.

Marc-André Hamelin © Fran Kaufman
Marc-André Hamelin
© Fran Kaufman

Balakirev’s Islamey is a (fantastic) piece for piano, that we heard tonight in the orchestrated version by Casella. As a work for solo piano it’s very impressive, but it does not translate well into an orchestral work at all (which might be because of this particular orchestration; there is another, more familiar, one by Lyapunov). Despite its contagious rhythm and energy, the orchestral colours remained simplistic and undistinctive, never quite managing to impress. The performance itself was commendable, in particular the third theme in Islamey which was played beautifully by the strings of the LPO. The brass, the trumpets in particular, impressed, but I could not help being constantly reminded of the lack of depth in the music.

It was this lack of depth that also pervades Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto. There are a lot of strengths to the piece, its orchestration is certainly of a much higher quality than that of Islamey, and the piano part oscillates between great virtuosity and rhythmically powerful melodies. Musically, the Piano Concerto is often quite similar to Prokofiev’s concertos, but there is a certain density about Khachaturian’s work that sometimes makes it much more difficult to digest than Prokofiev’s pieces.

The second movement Andante con anima was the most gripping part of the performance, with the addition of the musical saw (not, as in the original score, a flexatone) and an important part for the bass clarinet. It was also in this movement that Hamelin gave his most convincing performance, truly melting into the orchestra. The Allegro brillante finale was stunning, the whole orchestra bursting out into an infectious, foot-tapping dance. Despite these wonderful moments, the overarching lack of subtlety in the piece lets it down, making it less enjoyable than a lot of Khachaturian’s other music.

Kalinnikov’s Symphony no.1 was the saving grace of the evening. A beautiful work, full of instantly memorable themes, it was a joy to hear the London Philharmonic perform it so well. The strings of the LPO were on especially good form, the cellos played the second theme of the Allegro moderato first movement passionately. Principal oboist Ian Hardwick played particularly memorably, helping turn the symphony into a breath of fresh air after the onslaught of Balakirev and Khachaturian. Unfortunately it is a symphony that overstays its welcome, the scherzo being much less engaging and the finale merely draws out the melodies of the first two movements, adding little. Vänskä drew as convincing a performance as possible, despite my reservations about its length, making a good case for the value of Kalinnikov’s work.