“A mountain! The hardest piece you could everest play!” David Helfgott admits to Cecil Parkes in the film Shine, describing the monumental ‘Rach 3’ – Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor – the object of an obsession, which leads to his mental breakdown. Its technical challenges are legendary, attracting a good number of steely-fingered soloists to rattle off barnstorming performances in the grand manner. Refreshingly, Pavel Kolesnikov offered something very different in this instalment in the London Philharmonic’s ‘Inside Out’ exploration of Rachmaninov’s oeuvre.

Pavel Kolesnikov © Colin Way
Pavel Kolesnikov
© Colin Way

Tousle-haired and with a self-effacing demeanour, the young Siberian tackled this mountain with a lyrical, velvety touch – like a kitten treading the keyboard. Kolesnikov made light of the technical challenges, presenting the Allegro ma non tanto theme of the first movement with simplicity and charm. Cadenzas were poetically voiced, with no resorting to over-pedalling or hammering the keyboard for effect. Vassily Sinaisky and the LPO initially appeared to be on a crash course, setting off at a fleeting tempo, but settled to offer chamber-like support. It’s a salutary lesson to realise just how much of this movement is scored at piano or pianissimo – Kolesnikov and Sinaisky made you listen with fresh ears.

The Intermezzo, opening with a winsome oboe solo from Ian Hardwick, continued the tender approach. An easy fluidity characterised Kolesnikov’s playing, although he could summon up torrents of notes where necessary.  Even the vigour and athleticism required in the finale was met with stylish elegance, the LPO brass providing the rapier-like attack and Russian bite to spar with the pianist. The concerto’s closing pages were thrillingly dispatched, earning a loud ovation. Chopin’s Mazurka Op.68 no. 2 was the delicately poised encore, marked by neat trills.

The Second Symphony proved a great success in Rachmaninov’s lifetime, banishing self doubts about his ability as a symphonist following the disastrous première of the First. It has remained his most popular symphony, its Russian melancholy and romantic lyricism striking a chord with audiences ever since. The opening Adagio is crucial to establishing the weight of the performance. LPO cellos and basses (ten of each) immediately set the lugubrious tone, invoking Russian liturgical chant, responded to by the ‘amen’ chords from the woodwind choir, as layer upon layer of string polyphony help Rachmaninov set his foundation of themes. Sinaisky, more demonstrative here than in the piano concerto, kept things moving, eagerly ushering in each new theme. Woodwinds lacked individual flair and character, but created a warm, homogenised sound. An exception was Sue Böhling’s plaintive cor anglais solo, which led to the movement’s bristling Allegro moderato.

The Scherzo, taken at a real lick, was almost demonic in the way it was chivvied and harried along. Scything brass – led by principal trumpet Nicholas Betts – marshalled the attack. Sinaisky’s desire to keep things moving stopped the Adagio from descending into a sentimental quagmire. The last degree of roundness and warmth was missing from the great clarinet solo, but the LPO strings enveloped the listener like a giant bear hug. Sinaisky then drew all the threads of the Allegro vivace finale together with wily mastery, never applying the brakes too heavily, momentum maintained to the symphony’s majestic conclusion.

This was a deeply satisfying instalment to the LPO’s ‘Inside Out’ series, making one relish two masterpieces given such rewarding interpretations. 

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