There is a great deal that Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Rachmaninov share, that their music evokes, and for which their legacies stand. Not least because they are three of the quintessential Russian composers, with only a generation dividing them. But they were operating within a time of tumultuous political upheaval in Russia, and heightened surveillance. However, I feel the RSNO accentuated the personal and the domestic in this particular concert. Especially in the concerto, much like a Chardin painting, the exquisite detail of the everyday led to something special. For a couple of hours, this joined the three formidable characters together and connected them with us.

Kirill Gerstein © Marco Borggreve
Kirill Gerstein
© Marco Borggreve

As the piano was being set up for the concerto, Daniel admitted that this was the first time he had conducted the Prokofiev, adding, doubtless a number of the orchestra too. After a few minor coherency issues at the beginning of the overture, as the work could have started with slightly more impact, any tentativeness was soon expelled as the orchestra charged into this colourful piece. Much like his Peter and the Wolf, Prokofiev uses the sections of the orchestra to great effect; giving each a distinctive character or role to play. The percussion sound came across as authentic and convincing in providing a grounding folk-feel. The pizzicato in the strings was effective, and there was elegant fluidity of the violins in the second section, accentuated by the double basses and flutes. A little more connection could have been made between the upper strings and brass. The orchestra highlighted the contrasts between the sections of the overture well. The chamber section was simply entrancing, lulling amidst the gruff double basses. Daniel’s conducting seemed to do the opposite of the music – small and meticulous gestures, as the large, bounding Russian folk songs soared, and exuberant when smaller sections were in question. I found this led satisfyingly to freedom and intuitive response from the orchestra, especially in the exceptionally warm legato passages from the strings. One cannot help but remember that perhaps a false reality lies in this overture, Prokofiev’s celebration of his return to Russia, after time away in the US. A year later, his triumph of spirit had dwindled considerably due to growing Government censorship and control. His music was denounced as ‘Formalism’, and he became a marked man. This criticism was experienced by all three of these composers.

Kirill Gerstein, with nimble fingers and sensitive touch glided along the piano in the Shostakovich's Piano Concerto no. 2 in F major. He has a gentle but exacting precision, which fitted well with the orchestra, as the piano sections emerged seamlessly from the orchestration. One can immediately sense Gerstein’s background in jazz, only later confirmed by his connective gaze with the instruments that come to ‘duet’ with the piano (for example, the french horn in the third movement). This only enhances the sense of home that Gerstein communicates about Shostakovich’s concerto, and he does this well. The concerto is full of feelings of tension and conflict, but balanced with moments of bliss, conveyed well by the RSNO. In the second movement, the orchestra and Gerstein achieved a superb contrasting tone – a flawless line was upheld. Gerstein mirrored the orchestra well, his left hand maintained precise anonymity. His right produced excellent virtuosic freedom, with flawless technique of equal weighted fingers – every note seemed precious in the syrupy texture conjured, and serenity felt. In contrast, the third movement was playful, and no wonder there was a slightly shaky start – we had all been totally mesmerised by the second! Gerstein really seems to translate the music into statements, not staccatos or legatos, which really marries with the ‘chattering’ feeling of the music. The piano is clearly his language, and the melodies his words and phrases. Unlike Prokofiev, Gerstein went to the US and stayed.

Finally, Rachmaninov – a coherent beginning of the end. Maya Iwabuchi must be mentioned for her smooth tone and movement, leading seamlessly. There was a resonant full orchestra sound here, Daniel conducting with energy and powerful stances. The lower strings’ placement of stresses on notes was warming and effective. The cor anglais solo (Lydia Griffiths) was wonderfully executed, a siren to the change of mood in the movement. In the second movement, Rachmaninov pays homage to his failed First Symphony, bidding it farewell in acceptance perhaps of the past. The cellos pining solos leading into the new tempo was very sensitively played. Further sonority from the cellos, and beautiful solo woodwind made for a fantastic rendition and ending of this movement. Guy Spielman’s clarinet solo in the third movement must be commended. Perhaps Stravinsky heard some chromaticism he liked particularly in this part, with a fleeting audible connection to his later Rite of Spring. The viola solos brought this movement to a fabulous end. The awakening of the fourth movement was spritely, with the orchestra creating a sense of space, and the trumpets exquisite distancing. Perhaps as the last movement of the concert, the RSNO could have been more indulgent. Principal cello, Aleksei Kiseliov must be commended also for his attentive leadership of a strong section.

I found this concert to be very enjoyable, truly a celebration of these works and their composers, creating a family feel amidst the Russian arts revival. Familiarising and showing how fascinating these works are. It was a pleasure to see Daniel, the RSNO, and Gerstein exploring all corners of the programme, painting a precise picture.

***11