Standing Ovation for Rachmaninov

Glinka: Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture
Glinka: Valse from A Life for the Tsar
Kalinnikov: Symphony No. 1
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3


Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, leader Amyn Merchant
Kees Bakels: Conductor
Lukáš Vondráček: Piano

“IT’S monumental.  No one’s ever mad enough to attempt the Rach 3…” says John Gielgud, in the role of a professor of piano in the 1996 movie Shine.

The film tells the story of the Australian pianist David Helfgot, who conquers the ‘monster’, but at some cost to his mental health.

Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, written in 1907, is recognised as most technically demanding of all the concertos in the regular repertoire. The film perhaps over-mythologises the pianist as conquering hero: in a successful performance of this concerto, which is certainly what we witnessed at the Lighthouse last night, the overall impression is not of conflict, but of intimate, almost telepathic collaboration between orchestra, soloist and conductor.

The 30-year-old Czech pianist Lukáš Vondráček is something of a serial winner of prestigious piano competitions, and his command of the instrument was evident throughout the performance. He harnesses all the power of the Steinway without ever simply thumping it: his tone is huge, but never harsh. His clarity in passages which seem almost impossibly stuffed with notes was remarkable.

Rachmaninov, who wrote the concerto with himself in mind as soloist, was 6ft 5in tall, and with bigger hands than even that suggests. Vondráček, who is more averagely proportioned, made us forget the hours of rehearsal time and concentrate on the musical argument.

Conductor Kees Bakels and the orchestra were sensitive partners in this quite outstanding performance, which was rewarded by vociferous cheering and a standing ovation from the packed audience.

The Rachmaninov was sensibly placed in the second half of this all-Russian concert: anything following it would have been in serious danger of being an anti-climax.

Bakels had begun with a performance of Glinka’s familiar Ruslan and Ludmilla overture which was bursting with energy and brio. We then heard the Valse from A Life for the Tsar, taken at a very danceable tempo, in which Anna Pyne’s flute and Kevin Banks’s clarinet had characterful solos.

We then heard a rarity, in the shape of Kalinnikov’s First Symphony, from the mid 1890s. But for a poverty-stricken life and an early death, Kalinnikov may have developed into a much more important figure in the history of Russian music. His First Symphony is an accessible, engaging and idiomatically Russian piece, deserving of far more regular outings than it currently receives. The long first movement is particularly memorable in its striking themes and clear structure, and the gentle second movement made very effective use of Eluned Pierce’s harp. Bakels gave the score its own richly deserved round of applause at the end.

The Karabits years have seen the BSO develop into specialists in Russian music, and it was good to see them showcase their excellence in the maestro’s absence.


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