Deep down that long list of the rules of performance there is an assumption that all Prokofiev should be laced with sarcasm and subversion. After his return to the Soviet Union in the late 1930s, he had to be especially circumspect about what he wrote and how it was presented to the regime. His Fifth Symphony, for instance, was supposedly “a hymn to the freedom of the human spirit”, echoing the dogma of Socialist Realism outlined by the Composers’ Union in 1933, in which pieces were required to be “heroic, bright and beautiful” in order to celebrate “the spiritual world of Soviet Man”.

Yulianna Avdeeva and the SWR Symphony
© Daniel Dittus

Little of the later Hudibrastic style really applies to the Piano Concerto no. 3 in C major, written in the summer of 1921 in the calm surroundings of rural Brittany. The soloist in this performance was Yulianna Avdeeva, ably supported by the SWR Symphony under Teodor Currentzis, who has just renewed his contract as its chief conductor. It was easy to understand why she is such a superb interpreter of the music of Chopin. In the central movement consisting of a theme and five variations in E minor, there was a remarkably crystalline tone to each of the notes picked out with infinite care, like the freezing of raindrops falling gently onto a sheet of ice below.

Avdeeva sparkled in her range of colour and dynamics. In the first movement she captured the fleeting quality of the varying moods, the now-I’ve-got-you-now-I-haven’t moments with helter-skelter runs as well as the martial gestures with their pounding chords. With Currentzis energising all sections of his splendid orchestra at the start of the Finale, delighting in the seething, hissing and shrieking (especially from piccolo) sounds of the accompaniment, Avdeeva’s rhythms were full of coiled tension. As the final surge approached, the momentum ultimately became unstoppable, the exhilaration irresistible. Her encore, the Toccatina from Władysław Szpilman’s The Life of the Machines, was no less compelling than the concerto itself.

Teodor Currenztis and the SWR Symphony
© Daniel Dittus

Currentzis courts controversy in pretty much everything he does. He stretches things just a little farther than others do, giving full rein to an intensity of phrasing. Managing without a podium, he leans encouragingly into his front-desk players, even advancing between violas and cellos at one point to coax additional expressive flow from a solo flautist. His time both in Novosibirsk and in Perm has given him a special understanding of Russian orchestral colour. You may not always want the snaps and snarls you get in Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, though they were handled with absolute precision and imposing menace by the SWR Symphony, but there are rich rewards in lyrical inventiveness. Throughout I was repeatedly struck by the beguiling echoes of Rimsky-Korsakov.

Teodor Currentzis and the SWR Symphony in the Elbphilharmonie
© Daniel Dittus

The first movement unfolded like a great theatrical set-piece, with weighty underpinning from the nine double basses, the brass players giving their impression of a military march past with heavy artillery and missile carriers inspiring both awe and fear. At its climax, with tam-tam and gong amongst the full battery of percussion, the scene became almost apocalyptic. Contrasts elsewhere were etched out with commendable clarity. The second movement was an embodiment of the world of ballet, all featherlight and diaphanous in the strings, including those repeated little sighs all perfectly judged. In the Adagio there was much Russian soul to savour in the heavy tread of the writing, the shadows deepening with the onset of storm-clouds, the colours now bleached, throats parched. After the grinding dissonances of the climax piano, harp and rippling strings drew the curtain to a close. The encore? It just had to be from Romeo and Juliet.

 

*****