Rachmaninov and Shostakovich

Rachmaninov's second Piano Concerto is one of the most popular pieces in the repertoire: this doesn't mean it's easy to play - indeed it make huge technical demands on the pianist. Just getting your fingers round all the notes is an achievement.

Yesterday evening at the Royal Festival Hall it was performed by Hélène Grimaud with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy: Ms. Grimaud certainly got her fingers round all the notes without apparent strain, but the first two movements were performed in a rather plodding manner, lacking the fluidity which the work needs (which Rachmaninov himself achieved stunningly but which, to be fair, escapes most other pianists) and slightly too slow throughout. In the final movement, which requires more sparkle, the performance did come alive and here she was much more convincing.

The other work in the concert was Shostakich's 8th Symphony. Composing as he did in a poisonous atmosphere of political interference and professional jealousy, his works often have hidden meanings. The surface cheerfulness of the 5th Symphony, for example, is apparent as despair to anyone with musical sensibility; and the terrifying march in the Leningrad Symphony (No.7) was seen as a representation of the Nazi invasion by the commissars, but with the entire orchestra forced to play the same simple tune over and over is plainly a comment on totalitarianism.

So with the 8th Symphony (1943): ostensibly both a celebration of the victories of, and a mourning for the dead of, the Second World War, it was also intended as a requiem for the many 'disappearances' of dissidents in the 1930s. From a sombre start to a harsh militaristic climax, the first movement leads on to moments of reflection and a 'scherzo' of furious urgency. The militaristic passages intrude from time to time, but in the end peace descends: not so much with celebration as exhaustion.

It's not an easily approachable work, but the performance led us through it convincingly: Ashkenazy held the difficult journey together well.

Posted: Wed - September 23, 2009 at 09:24 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM