As the concerto that everyone knows – put to a myriad showbiz uses, including the Olympic torch relay in Moscow, and the credit sequence for ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ – Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 might be thought to have been worked to death, but its allure stays evergreen.
Last week the Croatian pianist Ivo Pogorelich – once the Southbank’s top classical pin-up – chose this work to announce his return to professional life, after years of mental dysfunction. But his performance with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Tugan Sokhiev suggested that he still has some way to go, being both awe-inspiring and shot through with terrible pathos. Poetry flashed intermittently, but was mostly obliterated by the leaden tempi which Pogorelich himself dictated: he was on one planet, and the conductor and orchestra were on another, with the result that what should have been a duet became a duel.
When Arkady Volodos sat down to play the same work with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly, the contrast could not have been more extreme. While Pogorelich hammered down the opening chords like a row of granite gravestones, Volodos gave them an easy swing. Where Pogorelich’s solo flights had a don’t-touch-me chill, Volodos’s were entrancing invitations to follow where he was leading. His introduction of the Ukrainian folk-song was velvet-pawed; the piano sang with exquisite sweetness in his cadenzas, and evoked the wide-eyed wonder of Tchaikovsky’s ballets.
This was, in short, an ideal symbiosis, with Volodos studying the orchestra intently, and the orchestra (and Chailly) reciprocating his attention. He was indeed mesmerising to watch, with his hands going like humming-birds in the trills, and conjuring dazzling octave cascades as though nothing could be simpler, but this wasn’t just showmanship: his sensitive reading of this work brought out all its heartfelt majesty.
The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra is about to take up a residency at the Barbican, and if the rest of this concert is anything to go by, this aspect of London’s musical future looks good. Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasia ‘Francesca da Rimini’ came splendidly clothed in Gothic raiment, and Respighi’s ‘Pines of Rome’ emerged as a superbly evocative succession of musical landscapes, with the voice of a real nightingale – does each orchestra record its own? – adding its song to the shimmering strings.