tue 25/06/2024

Volodos, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Chailly, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Volodos, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Chailly, Barbican

Volodos, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Chailly, Barbican

A masterclass in snow-shifting from two virtuoso shovellers

Virtuoso Arcadi Volodos: 'His fists arrived at the first strident chords like a nightclub bouncer's at a troublemaker's face'

Not much snow left on the Barbican after last night's barnstormer from Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus. What hadn't melted in the flames of the Russian pyre that is Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini would had been swept aside by the great quakes of Respighi's tub-thumping Pines of Rome. And the icy refuseniks clinging to Barbican pavements?

Note-gobbling piano virtuoso Arcadi Volodos - doing a very good impression of a snow shovel in Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto - was dealing with that.

I had been a little scared of this concert to be honest. Scared about the potential of the hall to absorb the pummelling it was going to get in the Respighi. But I had no idea that the real threat would come from Volodos. His fists arrived at the first strident chords like a nightclub bouncer's at a troublemaker's face. Biff. Baff. Bosh. His face was full of wounded pride and thuggish intent. What he had against that piano, I will never know.

The piano may not have survived but Tchaikovsky did. He can take this sort of thing. It's not necessarily a noble stride that opening hop, skip and jump. There is a case to be made for it as a brutish bit of swaggering. So I was with Volodos for much of the first movement. The springy couplets skulked like a 1950s ne'er-do-well, with stealth and a stutter. What Volodos was lacking in soul he made up for in drama. Which was fine for the Allegro and not so fine for the Andantino. Here the dynamic extremes didn't make much sense without an inner life.

Still, there were moments of fun. Like his Russian compatriot, he revelled in the Looney Tunes passages, such as the helter-skelter of the second subject. We chased this Tweety Pie-like scampering willingly. Yet it did make me wonder why he hadn't just given us a series of amuse-gueules, some Liszt or Thalberg. No matter. All the emotions that we were being denied by Volodos's singular performance were being more than made up for by the orchestra.

There were luminous individual contributions from principle flute Cornelia Grohmann and oboe Domenico Orlando. And the strings were full of lush delight, offering so many different shades and types of grassy beds. The medley of dances that make up the Allegro con fuoco became a Petrushka-like marketplace of rhythm, colour and sonic invention in Chailly's energetic hands.

A similar drive and control was to be had in the Francesca da Rimini. There's no overwhelming profusion of original ideas in this work for me but there is, at least, a Wagnerian spirit. Chailly created the most amazing Wagnerian soup out of the simple ingredients, forcing the bar line to disappear, to melt into a steaming pot of string fury. There was a joyous woodwind relay, handled with the most charm imaginable, and a bit of melodramatic fun from brass and strings and then a mad dash down to Rome.

You'll learn little from Respighi's Pini di Roma (1923-4). It's the beach holiday of musical tone poems: colourful, sun-drenched and mind-numbing. A hint of the Fascistic musical tropes of this time were to be found in the Turandotian war cries of the Lento and the way the trumpets in the brass psalm-singing were hooded like hostages. But, really, unless you run out of grit - or Volodoses - there's no need to resort to Respighi.




Other reviews of this concert have been uniformly warm. This is the only one to offer any criticism. I am with you. I am an ardent Volodos fan, which is why I went to the concert; but the pace revved up and down like a motorbike going from one traffic light to the next. Between some episodes the lights were red for a while and momentum shrank to zero. I thought it was a mutilation of the piece, but I'm clearly an exception among those in the hall and those writing about it afterwards.

Liszt and ThalBERG, surely... (unless I'm missing something?). I'm wondering what you mean, too, by the Wagnerian spirit of Francesca da Rimini, and why the demonstration of that spirit should somehow be a redeeming feature. I've always heard it as quintessentially Tchaikovskian -- with all the strengths and weaknesses that entails.

If I might chip in here with my Tchaikovskyan hat on, the composer himself acknowledged that Francesca had absorbed Wagner's influence - he'd just heard the Ring at Bayreuth, felt antipathetic towards it but admitted he couldn't help but absorb it into his music. Yes, the piece has his own stamp all over it; like any great genius, he was able to transform what influenced him. But you find a near-quotation from the love-music of Siegmund and Sieglinde in the central love-scene, and the dark, low brass variation of the rhinemaidens' theme pops up just before the whirlwind starts up again.

Of course it's Thalberg, HH. Apologies. Changing it now. Must have had Cornelius Cardew's Thalmann Variations on the brain for some reason.

Thank you David. I'll have a listen out for those Wagnerian touches next time. Sounds like an interesting case of 'anxiety of influence', and it says a great deal that Tchaikovsky could absorb it all without ever sounding imitative.

This is a thoroughly bizarre appraisal of Thursday's concert. Never have I heard a more introspective performance of that concerto. There was a weightiness to the opening, for sure, but nothing like the recent bulldozer Pogorelich performance with the Philharmonia.

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