Like a rash over London’s concert halls, Rachmaninov (or Rachmaninoff if you prefer) is everywhere this season – not that I’m complaining. The opportunity to immerse oneself in a composer’s works is often welcome. The London Philharmonic explores Rachmaninov ‘inside out’ in a thread running throughout its season. This opening salvo offered works from either end of his compositional career, from the early Piano Concerto no. 1 in F sharp minor – in its original version – to his staggering final work, the Symphonic Dances. Unfortunately, the programme misfired slightly, exposing the weaknesses of the concerto, exacerbated by a disappointing performance from the soloist.

Vladimir Jurowski © Roman Gontcharov
Vladimir Jurowski
© Roman Gontcharov

Alexander Ghindin has long been an advocate for the original version of the First Piano Concerto. It’s difficult to see why. Rachmaninov started work on it while still a student at the Moscow Conservatoire, completing it in a headlong rush in the summer of 1891. The work shows the influences of Tchaikovsky and Grieg in the interleaving of solo and orchestral themes, while the finale is Chopinesque, although it’s an over-filigreed cul-de-sac – florid, but going nowhere. Rachmaninov knew what he was doing in his 1917 revision, undertaken shortly before leaving Russia in the aftermath of the Revolution. The finale underwent the greatest changes, but losing the scampering coda to the first movement was also a change for the better. Ghindin’s playing was less than sympathetic; he bludgeoned and over-pedalled through much of the passagework, with only the briefest lyrical respite in the Andante cantabile second movement. Ironically, Ghindin’s best playing came in the glittering encore: the E flat minor Allegretto from the Six moments musicaux Op.16, in its 1940 revision. Proof that second thoughts may be worth heeding?

The rest of the evening was far more satisfying. Written shortly after his Second Symphony in 1909, The Isle of the Dead was inspired by a black and white reproduction of Arnold Böcklin’s sombre painting which bears the same title, depicting the rocky island in still, dark waters over which a boat, bearing a coffin and a white-robed figure, steadily makes its progress. The oppressively uneven rocking of Charon’s boat across the waters is conveyed by Rachmaninov through use of an almost hypnotic 5/8 metre, starting quietly but building in volume as it approaches the island. Vladimir Jurowksi’s conducting was equally hypnotic. There is a remarkable stillness to his podium style, where his steely presence finds expression through fluid flicks of the wrist. Occasionally, he abandoned his baton to sculpt phrases with his hands, but the clarity and control he exercised in this tone poem were very fine. He drew a sonorous cello sound, later matched by lower woodwinds, and the harp and pizzicato strings quoting the Dies irae theme (much quoted by Rachmaninov in his works) brought an eerie chill to the Festival Hall.

Jurowski transferred this remarkable control to the Symphonic Dances too. The presence of microphones in the hall was apparently because the conductor was dissatisfied with some elements of the LPO live recording from 2003, one of the first on its own in-house label. Given the all-round excellence of that performance, this is a remarkable view. Last night’s performance was strong, if less visceral than previously. Jurowski had the orchestral layout adjusted during the interval – violins, which had been antiphonal beforehand, were now grouped together, with basses and cellos now on the right. An unusual change came in placing the alto saxophonist next to the contrabassoon rather than beside the bass clarinet.

Jurowski drew lovely string playing from the orchestra, especially in the big, swooning melodies of the opening dance. The second movement waltz was very clean, but its clipped tempo robbed it of some of the sinister, crepuscular quality it requires. The best was saved to last – a devilish cauldron mixing the Dies irae with Russian Orthodox-style woodwind chant. You could almost smell the sulphur.

Much debate has been exercised over the final tam-tam stroke at the end. Jurowski clearly believes it should resound until it naturally decays, but his attempts to signal as such to the audience sadly failed – one for the post-concert patching session.

This was not quite the auspicious start to the series that had been anticipated, but Jurowski’s programming continues to intrigue.

***11