Gershwin and Rachmaninov may not be immediately obvious bedfellows but the two works performed on Friday night were packed with big tunes. Whether heart-swelling or toe-tapping, the ear candy on offer, judging by the full house, was always going to be a box-office winner. And what better partnership than guest conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin with the London Philharmonic Orchestra to realise this melodic jamboree in these top-notch accounts.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet © Harrison Parrott
Jean-Yves Thibaudet
© Harrison Parrott
Joining the LPO for the Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F major was the acclaimed French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. His rendition combined clarity and brilliance, veering a tad on the fast side. This allowed for the piano’s more athletic passages to sound dazzling and which showed off Thibaudet’s technical flair, but there were times, such as the piano’s opening statement, when a little more poetic eloquence could have been found. It was soon clear that this was going to be a musical fun ride with little or no use of the hand-brake but where soloist and conductor seemed to be completely united in their approach. With his outsize gestures and encouraging demeanour, Nézet-Séguin ensured crisp delivery of the Charleston rhythms and drew from the expansive tunes a warmth of tone from the strings that made the link with Rachmaninov all the more clear.

In the central movement muted trumpet (Paul Beniston) was insouciant (without ever over-egging the blue notes) and of the numerous cameo contributions flute, oboe and violin made notable appearances. There were melting moments too, and an all-too brief but memorable partnership emerged between piano and cellos that served to illuminate Gershwin’s newly acquired skill in orchestration. Both Thibaudet and the LPO brought out the wit of the concluding Allegro agitato with its Tom and Jerry tunes and comically prominent tuba and xylophone. If everything seemed to hurtle towards that famous gong entry a little too fast, the audience loved it. Their applause earned them Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte as an encore, notable for Thibaudet’s wonderful touch.

The coupling of Gershwin and Rachmaninov does, of course, make sense once you recall that both composers were living on the American east coast in the 1930s, and had Gershwin’s Russian parents not left St Petersburg in the 1890s he might even have attended some of Rachmaninov’s performances as a teenager. Stylistically conservative, Rachmaninov’s emotional appeal finds marvellously expressive outlet in his Symphony no. 2 in E minor, begun in 1906 at a time when his young family had temporarily settled in Dresden. Nézet-Séguin (now conducting without a score) charmed especially committed playing from the LPO; Rachmaninov’s arching phrases were nicely-shaped and climaxes well-prepared. Energy and passion drove forward the second movement where Nézet-Séguin teased out every nuance in order to reach its emotional highs and lows. Opulent strings gave support to an expressive clarinet (Robert Hill) in the third movement where Nézet-Séguin proved to be a master phrase builder. Here he allowed melodic contours to unfold naturally, judging to perfection when to hold back or move forward so that when the first climax arrived it was shattering. The last movement was no less intense, the coda exhilarating. In short it was a terrific evening, with magnificently prepared performances.

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