Víkingur Ólafsson (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Paavo Järvi
Prokofiev Symphony no.1 in D major Op.25 ‘Classical’ (1916-17)
J.S. Bach Keyboard Concerto in F minor BWV1056 (c1738-9)
Mozart Piano Concerto no.24 in C minor K491 (1786)
Shostakovich Symphony no. 9 in E flat major Op.70 (1945)
Royal Albert Hall, London
Saturday 14 August 2021
Written by Richard Whitehouse
Tonight’s Prom brought change of conductor, the always reliable Paavo Järvi stepping in for Santtu-Matias Rouvali in what would have been the latter’s Proms debut, but not of soloist – Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson duly making his first appearance at these concerts with concertos which, for the most part, played to his strengths.
The number of times that Bach’s keyboard concertos have been heard here on piano in recent decades can be counted on the fingers on one hand (Tatiana Nikolayeva’s D minor resonates in the memory), but that in F minor was a good choice in terms of its succinctness – the outer movements pitting soloist and (sizable body of) strings against each other with a trenchancy as was vividly conveyed here, with the central Andante an oasis of serenity that was not without its plangent asides.
Placing this piece before the interval, however, made for a distinctly short first half – given the relative length of Mozart’s C minor Concerto after the interval. There were many good things in this latter, Ólafsson keeping the first movement on a tight yet never inflexible rein so that its inclination to pathos – if not always its portentous undertones – came through in ample measure; not least in a coda that had been cannily prepared by the soloist’s cadenza. The central Larghetto was none the less the highlight – Ólafsson varying his tone such that piano melded into the woodwind for an early and defining instance of timbral colouration, with its limpid elegance never undersold. Maybe the finale was a little staid in the overall unfolding of its variations, but the coda’s strangely ambiguous poise was tangibly realized.
An auspicious debut, then, for Ólafsson, who underlined his prowess with affecting readings of the slow movement of Bach’s Fourth Organ Sonata (BWV526) in August Stradal’s chaste transcription and Liszt’s not unduly mawkish version of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus (K617). These further extended the disparity between each half – the first of which had commenced with Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony, not in the least small of scale or mimsyish as Järvi heard it; witness his acerbic and impetuous take on the initial Allegro, trumpets and timpani to the fore, then a Larghetto whose swift underlying tempo left little room for any harmonic piquancy to emerge. The Gavotte was slightly marred by several mannered agogics which tended to impede its rhythmic profile, but the Finale lacked little in sparkle or insouciance.
Among the most travelled and recorded conductors of today, Järvi can seem detached or even aloof in manner – but there was no such reticence evident in Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony as ended this programme. After a tensile and assertive Allegro, which audibly benefitted from the sizable forces onstage, the Moderato recalled Efrem Kurtz’s classic recording as to overall restraint and a dark-hued introspection rising to anguish in its twin climaxes. Playing without pause, the other movements were of a piece with the foregoing – a driving and almost manic Presto subsiding into a Largo, whose ruminative bassoon soliloquys were eloquently taken by Emily Hultmark, then an Allegretto whose capriciousness was acutely gauged through to its bitingly sardonic climax and breathless final payoff. Undoubtedly a performance to savour.
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