Saturday, March 28, 2009

WPAS - London Symphony Orchestra - Prokofiev & Beethoven - 03/28/09

Prokofiev: Symphony No 1 in D Major, Op. 25, "Classical"
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 4 in G Major, Op. 58 - Alexei Volodin
Prokofiev: Symphony No 6 in E-Flat Minor, Op. 111

Two days after hearing Prokofiev's Symphony No 5 performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, his symphonies No 1 and 6 were being performed by the London Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center and conducted by no less than Valery Gergiev. But I can't imagine ever hearing too much of Prokofiev! A long-time supporter of 20th century Russia's enfant terrible, Gergiev's well-known expertise in the composer's oeuvre obviously makes him the ideal conductor for such a program. In-between the two symphonies was Beethoven's 4th piano concerto, performed by his young but already getting around fellow countryman Alexei Volodin. The London Symphony Orchestra has been one of the most highly regarded orchestras in the world for more than a century thanks to not only their stellar performances, but also their unflinching commitment to educative and community-oriented endeavors. This afternoon, however, they were here to play, and they sure proved that in that field, they're second to none.

Allegedly an homage to Haydn, Prokofiev's first symphony was a big departure for him inasmuch as it was so, well, classical, which was, naturellement, another way for him to stun the unsuspecting public. Only 12 minutes long, it is typically a model of graceful style... until maestro Gergiev decides to bring out the fire in it, that is. While he remained dutifully respectful of Prokofiev's original score, his version yesterday had certainly more intensity and resonance than the ones I've had the chance to hear before. The Finale, in particular, was a lot of fun, with all the unbridled energy of a relentless car chase... Eventually quite "unclassical"!
Beethoven's fourth piano concerto starts with a surprise when the solo piano opens the piece. The second surprise is its serene and lyrical mood. The third one is the constantly engaging dialogue between piano and orchestra, where the soloist responds gently to the grouchy orchestra. Alexei Volodin gave a solid performance, and was kind enough to reward our resounding ovation with a short, but exquisite Prelude by Rachmaninoff.
Composed a few years after the heroic Symphony No 5, Prokofiev's sixth symphony was a less grandiose and merciless grim reminder of the cost of war, and was of course promptly banned by the Soviet government until after Prokofiev's death in 1953. Considered by some as his masterpiece, it is unmistakeably dark and chaotic music, indeed, and Gergiev fiercely brought it to life sans baton, but who needs it when you have the impeccably oiled ensemble that is the LSO at your fingertips? The intense outbursts and falsely lyrical passages kept us riveted in our seats, and after the light-hearted circus-like beginning of the third movement, the incandescent Finale brought the whole piece to its harshly dissonant and deeply troubled conclusion.

After this wild ride, we thankfully got an opportunity to catch our breath with some lighter fare, which did not take a lot, really, in the form of Romeo and Juliet's "Dance of the Knights". The maestro seamlessly channelled Prokofiev to the very end and assuredly led the tireless orchestra in yet another terrific performance. Spassiba!

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