Not all this year’s bicentennial tributes to Chopin will necessarily be by Chopin.
The slow movement of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto is as uncannily Chopinesque as anything the Polish master himself penned – a melody of wistful fragrance heightened by delicious suspensions in the accompanying string harmony. Yes, Chopin had much to teach anyone who ever whispered sweet nothings to a keyboard.
The young Shostakovich did so on a regular basis, accompanying silent movies to supplement his income. Many a consumptive heroine will have faded gracefully to music like this. Denis Matsuev, the hot Russian pianist of the moment, played it here with unobtrusive purity, a nocturne for the break of day rather than the descent of night. It was a good few romantic notions away from being rapturous – but then clarity is Matsuev’s most persuasive attribute. Clarity and rhythmic muscle.
The outer movements of the concerto – kicking off at the gallop with the opening Allegro’s “what shall we do with the drunken sailor” like ditty – were pretty dazzling in their metallic incisiveness. There wasn’t too much humour in the mix – slapstick or otherwise - but the excitement generated with those pile-driving bass ostinati and repeated figures in the upper extremes of the instrument cut through anything that Semyon Bychkov and the London Symphony Orchestra could throw at Matsuev. Paradoxically, as an encore, he played Liadov’s “Musical Box” with more rubato than such mechanisms generally allow – and he even cracked a smile or two in the process.
But this was Bychkov’s debut with the LSO and he launched it in fine style with an account of Dvorak’s Carnival Overture that was nothing if not splashy. An especially sensitive soft-centre was blessed with gorgeous cor anglais and violin solos and little details like Dvorak’s explosive timpani exclamations added spice to the home stretch. Brahms’ Fourth Symphony was rather more challenging and for my money less convincing.
The big danger posed by the outer movements of this piece is the attention to lyric detail at the expense of momentum. Bychkov’s first movement lingered too lovingly over the songful “hot spots” and in the great passacaglia finale the still centre in solo flute, though beautiful, was almost a separate event. Of course there is always excitement and insight with this conductor and the slow movement proceeded most eloquently from misty-eyed horn calls and expectant pizzicati to an exquisite realisation of the cello-led theme, its attendant harmonies in violins and violas tenderly illuminated.