There is no getting around the fact that Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor is simply not suited to the vast expanses of the Royal Albert Hall. Rather than composing a showpiece, a chance for the soloist to display their virtuosity, Brahms combines piano and orchestra as equal partners in a symphonic-style structure. Any virtuosic passages in the piano part are not merely crowd-pleasers, but form part of the integral structure. Brahms’ concerto, then, is not a brashly virtuosic piece as other concertos might be. It does not rely on grand orchestration or a soloist’s virtuosity for its effect. The issue with this, however, is that the vastness of the Albert Hall requires performers to project, a task far easier with overtly showy pieces.

Valery Gergiev © Valentin Baranovsky
Valery Gergiev
© Valentin Baranovsky

Conductor Valery Gergiev seemed to have a solution for this. There was something even Mahlerian in the huge sense of foreboding that Gergiev pulled from the LSO at the work’s opening. This kind of dramatic and highly intense playing continued through the work, as they wrung as much drama from the music as possible. Gergiev’s interpretation edged on being overly Romantic, but perhaps this was necessary for such a big hall. Subtlety might have failed to have any impact.

Unfortunately, this carried over into pianist Barrie Douglas’ playing. Nevertheless, he cannot be accused of turning the work into a showpiece. Even as his fingers glided through technically difficult passages, Douglas did little to draw attention to them. Overall his playing was better during grander moments, when he was pitted against the full orchestra. Yet at quieter points, he left me wanting. In a piano passage near the first movement’s close, the piano’s melody got lost within its texture. I was yearning for this heart-felt melody to be brought out, but Douglas didn't oblige. His entries in both the first and second movements were disappointing too. Both require the pianist to join, rather than interrupt, the orchestra with a gentle new melody. However, both times he entered too abruptly, resulting in a disjointed piano and orchestra. Douglas was unprepared for these entries, never quite being gentle enough in these delicate passages. 

Trying to find a balance between subtlety and a need to project was not going to be a problem in Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass with the addition of choir, extra brass, percussion, and the massive pipes of the Albert Hall’s organ. The work itself has little precedent, using an obscure Slavonic church text rather than Latin. The huge orchestra makes it difficult to imagine the work being used in a religious context, especially since Janáček himself was a non-believer.

Even if it is a secular mass, this did not prevent the London Symphony Chorus from transcending. Their first entrance in the Kyrie was angelic in comparison with the earthy orchestra. This was enhanced by their first entrance being preceded by two movements of pure instrumental music: the Intrada and Introduction. Janáček’s mass does not have a fixed form since he made many revisions and never settled on a single version. In this performance the Intrada opens and closes the work, but other versions only include it at the end. But for the sake of the choir, I appreciated the inclusion of two preceding instrumental movements before their entry. After seeing this huge choir assemble at the end of the interval and waiting through two movements heightened the anticipation, making their eventual entry even more sublime.

The London Symphony Chorus were not the only stars however. The brass in particular was on top-form, unabashed during fanfare passages. But the Glagolitic Mass is not only about excitement and triumph. Gergiev’s subtle side, which had been missing in the Brahms, finally came through. He enticed a beautifully warm sound from the cellos and clarinets during the orchestral interlude in the Credo, and the dying out of the orchestra at the end of the Agnus Dei was treated thoughtfully and with delicacy. This was only to be interrupted by the other star of the evening, organist Thomas Trotter. The penultimate movement’s organ solo allowed Trotter to display his masterful virtuosity (and the massive volume of the Albert Hall’s organ) but how he blended the organ with the orchestra was also impressive. Trotter was just as capable at accompanying as he was at blasting out. 

Surprisingly, it was in Janáček’s exuberant Glagolitic Mass that Gergiev and the LSO showed their capacity for delicacy, coming out better when put against the mass’ exuberance and energy. Whilst Brahms left me wanting, in Janáček’s mass Gergiev and the LSO displayed both their sensitivity and their ability to excite.