Classical: Roof-raising Rachmaninov

HIDDEN PERSPECTIVES: RACHMANINOV ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL LONDON

THE FIRST London "Hidden Perspectives" concert, celebrating the work of Sergei Rachmaninov, saw the composer's grandson Alexander listening attentively as Vladimir Ashkenazy, the Philharmonia and a full-throated St Petersburg Chamber Choir raised the roof with a choral symphony that opens exultantly and closes on a note of gloomy consolation. The Bells is based on Poe's poem, and baritone Dimitri Kharitonov was the best of three featured soloists.

The concert had opened with a trio of piano Etudes tableaux dressed in Respighi's cinematic orchestrations, the first a sort of Ron Goodwin sound- alike and the second a dead ringer for Rachmaninov's own tone-poem The Isle of the Dead.

For the central act, Moscow-born Yevgeny Kissin charted the Second Piano Concerto's ominous opening chords virtually to perfection. Kissin can ravish the ear as seductively as anyone, or accentuate a phrase with compulsive deliberation. And yet he can as easily withdraw into his own world, his eyes fixed anywhere but on the rostrum, before suddenly firing off again into virtuoso prominence.

It was a strangely disjointed performance, orchestrally plush, pianistically unpredictable, a promising embryo that might - at some time in the future - grow into a great performance. Best was the detail, those "divine moments" that piano-fanciers love to notice but that don't really matter much in the wider scheme of things.

Maximum contrast with Kissin's exalted fussiness was provided by his compatriot and near-contemporary Arcadi Volodos, who took to the stage on Thursday for Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto. Where Kissin communes with self, Volodos plays to the gallery. He has the cultivated ease of a jazz musician, a gentle charisma that can be quite disconcerting.

During the Concerto's quiet orchestral opening, he leaned back in his chair as if performing was the last thing on his mind. "He'll miss his cue," I thought, an unwarranted fear that instantly vanished as he caressed the first theme to life. The fireworks came later - in the huge first movement cadenza (the bigger of two possible options), and in an account of the finale that erupted with the force of a Horowitz or, dare I say, of Rachmaninov himself.

Volodos is a stupendous technician, but is he a musical player? I'd wager a bet that Ashkenazy related more readily to Kissin's inward musings than to Volodos's display, although it was Volodos who seemed the more responsive to the conductor's contribution.

Thursday's programme opened with the rarely heard symphonic poem Prince Rostislav and ended with an uncut reading of the Second Symphony. Both performances confirmed at least one perspective on Rachmaninov that is far from "hidden": his colossal debt to Tchaikovsky.

Rob Cowan

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