MUSIC / Bits and pieces: Anthony Payne at the Proms and the Barbican

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The Independent Culture
EVEN THE most sympathetic commentators on Schumann's music used to voice doubts about his symphonic capabilities. It was suggested that he had always essentially been a miniaturist who cobbled his larger structures together from short, self-contained inspirations. The climate of opinion seems to have changed, but it is still possible to hear a performance (like Victoria Postnikova's of the Piano Concerto in Saturday's Prom) which seems to deny Schumann's command of symphonic dialectic absolutely, treating it as a series of passing fancies improvisatorily linked.

Hers was an oddly eccentric performance aided and abetted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The momentum of the first movement was almost totally destroyed by the most exaggerated rubato, bringing poetic intensity to certain individual passages but apparently taking no account of the broader perspective. After such wrongheadedness one felt inclined to write the performance off, but the slow movement went more simply and convincingly, and this perplexing interpretation was completed by a genuinely poetic and symphonically controlled account of the finale.

The remainder of the programme also left a rather mixed impression, for the main sections of Brahms's Song of Destiny were beautifully done, with warm singing by the BBC Symphony Chorus and Wooburn Singers, while the agitated central episode, admittedly not among the composer's most inspired creations, hung fire. Verdi's Four Sacred Pieces closed the programme more convincingly but even here one sensed that Rozhdestvensky was slightly at odds with the music.

Two days later the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra in their Barbican Centre programme confined themselves to their native repertory, and performed with style and conviction under Vassily Sinaisky. Despite the electricity they generated, however, the orchestra proved too uneven to be counted among the world's finest. At the outset, the strings made a fiery and disciplined impression in Glinka's Russlan and Ludmilla, articulating with great clarity at Sinaisky's very quick tempo; but the wind and brass were flawed in both intonation and timbre.

It would have benefitted them, for example, if they had chosen to play one of the more rough-hewn arrangements of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, rather than Ravel's elegant, gallicised version. Ashkenazy's orchestration would have suited their hard- edged, characteristically Russian sound far better. Still, there were fine moments, and the 'Great Gate at Kiev' brought the curtain down most excitingly.

Earlier, in what proved to be the performance of the evening, we heard a powerful interpretation of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto by Nikolai Petrov, a true keyboard lion of fantasy and daring. Perhaps a little too much pedal in the work's double-octave challenges, but poetry and strength abounded, and the playing in the Andantino's central scherzetto was breathtaking.