Prior to launching their Far Eastern tour, the London Symphony Orchestra presented their programme of works by Ravel, Beethoven and Mussorgsky at the Barbican Hall on Sunday, 3 June 2018.
Gianandrea Noseda, the Principal Guest Conductor of LSO, has already made a lasting and deep impression conducting Shostakovich’s Symphony No 8, and he will continue his Shostakovich cycle in this and next season. Most impressively, wonderful and gentlemanly Noseda speaks perfect Russian, as he has spent a number of years working as guest conductor at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. There could be some connection between Noseda’s Russian training and his professed interest in Russian and Soviet music, and this evening profiled this connection in a double way. Firstly, a Soviet-born American pianist Yefim Bronfman was the soloist of the evening with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, and, secondly, Modest Mussorgsky’s classic Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) in Ravel’s arrangement for ochestra (done in 1922) were performed by LSO. While not being challenging or innovative, the programme was excellent in its inclusion of well-known classics performed by top class musicians, and would have been very much in place at St Petersburg Philharmonia or Moscow Conservatoire. But Barbican it was this time, and the auditorium was nearly full.
The evening began with Ravel’s suite Rhapsodie espagnole (1907) that originally developed from its third piece – Habanera, with other three (Prélude a la nuit, Malagueña and final Feria) composed later. As many biographers note, Ravel has always been fascinated with Spain (as, amongst other things, it reflected his heritage), and his interest was part of general interest in exploring ethnicity and exoticism in art, literature and music at that time. Spain (one could remember Mérimée here) has always been associated with colourful, passionate, emotional and naïve life, as opposed to French intellectualism, social order and civilised existence. Ravel’s Rhapsodie espagnole evokes the colours of Spanish dances, incorporating African rhythms and Latino elements into them, with beautiful orchestration making us feel as if we are flowing over the crowds of dancers and breathing in the atmosphere of jubilant joy. Noseda was excellent in making the LSO orchestra shine in this piece, bringing out sparkles from everyone from strings to brass and prompting the percussions to be agile and poignant.
The true revelation of the evening was a piece of the programme that came next – Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 played by a renowned pianist Yefim Bronfman who turned 60 this year. Written in 1800 (Beethoven premiered it himself, and partly from memory, as he did not have time to put it down fully), it is one of the most famous piano concertos heralding new maturity and depth in Beethoven’s music, marking his move to the fully-fledged individual style and mastery. Reminiscent of Mozart’s Concerto No. 24, it is so beautiful that somehow each note and movement brings the feeling that we had known and heard it before in previous lives (as undoubtedly we did). Having a long orchestral exposition, it leaves the soloist some time to join in, but once Bronfman started performing, the true magic of that evening began. Each carefully crafted movement, each note appearing under this pianist’s fingers belonged to some ideal place, as though, indeed, the performed sounds were Plato’s shadows on the wall of a cave from which we could guess the contours of something grand, true and mesmerisingly beautiful. It was also full of sense and meaning, as though one suddenly woke up from a lumber and understood Bronfman’s and Beethoven’s language, and waited for every new minute with anticipation of true understanding. The reasons behind such epiphany and connection with the sounds of a Beethoven classic remain, as always in music, a mystery. It was similar to the night when Evgeny Kissin performed Beethoven’s Hammerklavier, though this evening was probably less intense and philosophical, leaving space for a spiritual uplift and joy. Noseda cleverly left it to Bronfman to establish the needed dynamics of sound, never allowing the orchestra to overpower him. Noseda highlighted the dialogues between the woodwind instruments and the soloist, with Bronfman being extremely attentive to his fellow musicians, while confidently following his own beautiful interpretation and vision.
After the interval followed Mussorgsky’s Pictures at Exhibition (1874) that brought Gianandrea Noseda back to the exotic, folklore colours which he had earlier explored with Ravel and his visions of Spain. Mussorgsky’s piece, which was published only some years after the composer’s death, has become fully ingrained in Russian listeners’ minds, both in its original version for piano and in various orchestral arrangements. The arrangement by Ravel (1922) is an all-time popular and most performed. It was a tribute to Mussorgky’s friend Victor Hartmann, whose works were presented at the memorial exhibition in St Petersburg in February 1874. The famous promenade theme pervades the piece, always changing the tonality, so as to prepare us for the next piece. The pieces are interconnected through composer’s unifying vision. They were partly inspired by pictures present at the exhibition or seen by Mussorgsky when he had personally visited Hartmann, who had travelled through whole Europe on Russian Academy of Art’s grant. The changes of mood range from the playful joke of Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks and tender Tuilleries where children’s voices are represented by higher instrumental registers to dark and profound Catacombae. Colourful Hut on the Hen’s Legs and Gnomus, as well as The Great Gate of Kiev bring in the Slaviс imagery into the eclectic mix of the West and East created by Mussorgsky.
Noseda was confident in putting forward rich colours and refreshingly characteristic sounds of Mussorgsky’s score, as the composer had never shied away from exaggerated vividness of his musical imagery. Ravel also introduced an alto saxophone (an unusual guest in classical repertoire) into Il Vecchio Castello piece where this instrument has a beautiful solo played by Simon Haram. The finale of the Great Gate of Kiev is marked as maestoso and is building up a grandiose picture of a church choir and church bells through the use of piano, bells and several sets of cymbals, thus, creating an apotheosis of religious unity through majestic orchestral sounds. The energy and power of Gianandrea Noseda reminded one of his Shostakovich performances, although the aftertaste was of fulfilling joy this time, with audiences rising to their feet to celebrate the art of the Milanese maestro.