The London Philharmonic’s “Rachaminoff: Inside Out” season has produced some thrilling performances so far, combining rarer works with warhorses to great effect. Wednesday night’s concert, before an almost-full Royal Festival Hall, was a more mixed affair. The programme was particularly muscular, opening with Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. The Symphony, composed between 1942-1945, looks back to Stravinsky’s earlier neo-classicist style. Unsurprisingly given the composition date, Stravinsky openly acknowledged the influence of World War 2 upon the work. The first movement was inspired by a documentary on the Japan-China war and the third movement evokes German soldiers’ goose-stepping and also the Allied force’s emerging victory. The second movement meanwhile is drawn from themes he had composed for the film adaption of The Song of Bernadette.

Jorge Luis Prats © Kajimoto
Jorge Luis Prats
© Kajimoto

The opening movement lacked shape and the impact was further lessened by a lack of clarity in the orchestral sound. This piece is driven by sharp ostinato phrases and delicate neo-classical textures and neither were clearly conveyed. The rhythmic phrases in the lower strings and piano in particular were often not sufficiently accentuated so that they shone out through the texture and this diminished the result. This general lack of balance continued throughout, leaving the performance rather staid.  

I was unfamiliar with Jorge Luis Prats, the soloist for Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor. One magazine recently referred to him as “the best pianist you’ve never heard of”, his international career only launching within the past decade, relatively late in life. Prats gave a largely satisfactory interpretation of the first movement. The climax followed by the restatement of the opening theme in the middle of the movement lacked fire, but the phrasing was generally nicely articulated. The second movement was the highlight, with soloist and orchestra delivering impassioned playing that didn’t slip into sentimentality. The third movement marked a departure from the norm, but not necessarily for the best. After a fairly pedestrian orchestral opening Prats set off at lightning speed during the first piano entry. The orchestra seemed to take a while to adjust to this. Dangerous speeds can be exciting; however, there were an unfortunately high number of inaccurate notes throughout the first half of this movement which made me feel more nervous than excited. Whilst the closing bars were definitely bombastic, the increased speed mainly detracted from the smaller orchestral details in the movement. Small but important moments such as the solo trumpet passage midway through were all but lost. 

The opportunity to hear The Bells was undoubtedly the main draw of this programme. It is an intriguing piece, based on Russian translations of Edgar Allen Poe’s poems. The four bells: “The Sliver Sleigh Bells”, “The Mellow Wedding Bells”, “The Loud Alarm Bells” and “The Mournful Iron Bells” seem to symbolise a journey from birth and innocence to death and redemption. Whilst this work was among Rachmaninov’s personal favourites, it strikes me as slightly dull and unmemorable, at least, melody-wise. What it lacks in melody, it makes up for in atmosphere and orchestration and the London Philharmonic under the baton of Vasily Petrenko carved a wonderful narrative throughout, whipping up a frenzy in the third movement. The London Philharmonic Choir responded exceptionally to the considerable challenges posed by the complex choral writing and as far as I could reasonably tell their Russian pronunciation seemed clear and well-intoned. The soloists’ contribution was inconsistent. Tenor Daniil Shtoda’s voice struggled to make an impact and fill the hall; however Anna Samuil and Andrei Bondarenko’s efforts were considerably stronger and more impassioned. It was a welcome opportunity to hear a more obscure piece of Rachmaninov’s output performed in front of a full audience, however, neither the rarity nor the warhorse managed to shine on the night.