The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Rachmaninov Inside Out festival continued with a performance of the Russian composer’s Symphony no. 1 in D minor, as well as works by Szymanowski and Scriabin. Although the programme of the London Philharmonic’s exploration of Rachmaninov is somewhat safe – with much of the focus still on the composer's oft-performed piano concertos, this evening’s concert showed the value of the orchestra’s decision to explore Rachmaninov's music, as I have never before heard the First Symphony performed so convincing.

Igor Levit © Felix Bröde
Igor Levit
© Felix Bröde

Karol Szymanowski’s Concert Overture started off the concert with a bang. The London Philharmonic Orchestra were on stage in full strength, and Vladimir Jurowski led them in a fiery account of the overture. The piece is much richer than its name would suggest, however, as in more or less 16 minutes we were treated to a dynamic piece, often lyrical but also bombastic and exotic. The harmonies were stunning, and the musicians of the LPO played the multiple solos brilliantly. The orchestra and Jurowski certainly kicked off the concert with much determination. 

Igor Levit has been building a reputation as an interpreter of Bach and Beethoven, therefore hearing him play Scriabin's Piano Concerto in F sharp minor was an event that made me very curious. His account did not disappoint. Levitt has an impressively light touch, and even though this meant that the more expressive parts of Scriabin’s concerto were somewhat unremarkable, it also meant that we were treated to a gorgeous performance.   

Jurowski kept a close eye on the balance, and although the timing wasn’t quite perfect, there was clear affinity between the LPO and Levitt. In the second movement there was a particularly beautiful moment where the clarinets, strings and piano played together – their warm sounds melting together perfectly. The LPO had to change significantly from Szymanowski’s Overture to the Scriabin, both in size and in temperament, but they handled this very well. The concerto sounded almost like a chamber piece at times, and the feel of the performance seemed to highlight Chopin’s influence on Scriabin, which suited Levitt’s style perfectly.

The story of Rachmaminov’s First Symphony has become somewhat legendary. An allegedly drunken Glazunov conducted the première, and the public reception was so bad that Rachmaninov fell into a deep depression. It took him three years before he started composing again, and he never embraced his First Symphony again. Nowadays it is appreciated much more than the Russian crowd in 1897, and the audience’s response to this performance by the London Philharmonic would have no doubt impressed Rachmaninov. 

From the first notes of the symphony onwards, the LPO and Jurowski threw themselves into the piece without hesitation. It still sounds like the work of a young composer, enthusiastic and passionate, yet the LPO brought out an emotional depth to the work that one does not always hear. The third, slow movement Larghetto was unfortunately less convincing that the others, the orchestra somehow losing some of its sharpness. However, the other three movements were played better than I have ever heard them, and the finishing Allegro con fuoco was somehow both frightening and triumphant. This made for an impressive ending to an equally impressive concert.