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Nothing Short of Spectacular

Russian Epics and Organ Spectacular Concerts, London Philharmonic Orchestra. 17 and 19 January 2018, Royal Festival Hall

London Philharmonic Orchestra has presented two exciting thematical programs to its audiences last week, bringing incredible, internationally sought-for duets of a guest soloist and a guest conductor to amaze the audiences on both nights. LPO’s motto featuring on their program is ‘BE MOVED’ and we were indeed moved deeply on both occasions. The first evening was themed ‘Russian epics’, and, apart from Khachaturian’s Adagio from Spartacus, featured two great delights from Russia’s most famous composers – Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 3 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4. Mikhail Agrest, a conductor from St Petersburg, who has already worked with LPO in the past, has been invited to conduct this all-Russian program, and Anton Gugnin, a pianist from Moscow, was the soloist for Rachmaninoff’s concerto. While Khachaturian’s piece could be called a warmer-up, these two grand pieces were the ones that captured the audiences’ attention.

Gugnin’s sound was always crystal clear and light in Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No 3, and one can imagine how difficult it is to achieve such brillancy with all those typical Rachmaninoff chords that are sometimes impossible for fingers. Andrey was not allowing himself to make emotions take over him but was delivering Rachmaninoff’s most difficult piece for piano an orchestra with constant attention to detail and intellectual focus on its themes and developments. Agrest never allowed the orchestra to overpower the pianist, but led the instruments that engage in a dialogue with the piano (a flute especially, entering in so many places, all of them remarkably lyrical) carefully and expertly. Gugnin had quite a different manner of performance of this famous Rachmaninoff’s piece from the ones I’ve heard before (Daniil Trifonov performing it at White Nights Festival in St Petersburg came to mind), and his specific style was letting emotional roller-coasters go in favour of quick, chiselled out, masterful sounds that make up this difficult piece. I think he was at his best in cadenza and in the moments when the rhythm of the concerto slowed down, while I think in some parts he could have gone for more crescendo in the sound, but he did not choose to, letting the piece flow as it was his individual solo part. That was an interesting interpretation and it would be delightful to hear more from this pianist, whose recording of Shostakovich has already featured in ‘Bridge of Spies’ film.

Although I anticipated it to be the contrary, for me personally it was the second half of the concert that was a revelation. To hear and observe the orchestra in play I moved to the choir section, and I must say that Royal Festival Hall is quite a unique place where one can observe musicians and conductor from such close range and follow different instruments as they make their progress in an orchestral work. Agrest conducted Tchaikovsky’s Symphony 4, and it was interesting to learn that Tchaikovsky went through deep personal struggles during this time. It is then understandable that the symphony engages with so many changes of emotions that it seems like a flight through air in a very bad weather, with many uplifts and downfalls on the way, however, orchestrated beautifully by one of Russian composers whose sense of melody never failed him, however down his moods could be. Tchaikovsky experimented with the rhythms here, as well as with the musical texture of each part of the symphony, and it is scherzo with its pizzicatos for various sections of the orchestra, and finale which incorporates a Russian folk song that are most fascinating to listen to. They are indeed uplifting, too, as the music forcibly overcomes its own drive to darkness and emerges refreshed, brightened up and ready to exclaim that happiness exist in this world, with sounds from many instruments supporting this statement with exquisite bravura. Mikhail Agrest, being a man of quite a sensitive temperament himself, was able to lead the orchestra through these constast changes, always emotionally reaching to this or that musician with his hands and sometimes leaning and jumping in order to get the right sound, always doing it gracefully, with a kind smile on his face. And I could only report on the conductor’s psychological state of mind as the choir seat refreshingly provided a perspective from where this work of conductor and his musicians was visible and enjoyable to see. It was a wonderful and inspiring evening, and people lingered longer, still reflecting on the epic character of Russian soul, as I choose to think.

The second concert – Organ Spectacular – was quite different in character, but as epic as the first one. Here the grandeur of the evening was initially expected by the sheer fact that the we would hear an organ of the Royal Festival Hall playing. It is the most beautiful thing just to see it there spread over the whole width of the hall, and I think one should always catch the opportunity to listen to it. The LPO provided its audiences with it, bringing in the man whose musical directorship and mastery of organ has been enjoyed by such figures as Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during their wedding and Pope Benedict XVI. James O’Donnell, the Organist and Master of the Choristers of Westminster Abbey was the soloist appearing with London Philharmonic that evening, and that was nothing short of a miraculous thing to be able to hear him perform. O’Donnell started with a solo piece that is one of the most recognizable in the world – Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for organ. I think listening to an organ together with other people (and not in church) is a special experience never to be forgotten, and the moments of that Bach piece, however familiar the notes were, automatically led our spirits and souls to some higher destinations, and those need not have been located in the sphere of religion.

The evening proceeded with the Belgian conductor Dirk Brossé (also a prolific and succesful composer) taking the lead over the orchestra and soloist (who had to use three mirrors to take the note of the conductor’s movements) to perform Symphony No 3 (Organ) by Saint-Saëns. Here the organ rises to power only towards the fina section, before that letting the orchestra develop the grandiose idea of te composer. Organ joins the orchestra on its way to heights both in terms of crescendo and accelerando of the sounds, and this powerful journey of instruments letting the organ fly into immeasurable grandeur of the concert hall could be compared to a rocket flying into the space. Quite a different feeling was provoked by the last organ piece of the evening – Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie concertante for organ and orchestra, which has much more of the continous duet work between organ and the orchestra than the Saint-Saëns symphony.

The organ of Royal Festival Hall. Credits: Tim Cochrane

That piece was intended by the composer for performance in Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia (a strange choice of a place to do a premiere, by modern standards), as the world’s largest organ was being build there, but that intention was never realized. The piece is a true pearl for any organ virtuoso as it gives space both for lyrical passages full of grandeur and for quick succession of notes where the organist could excel in the way the modern public is not expecting him to be. There is also a constant dialogye between organ and the woodwind section of the orchestra, and it was such a delight to move one’s vision from the orchestra to the pipes of different calibre where O’Donnell moved the sound from left to right like a true magician. There was something of being in a toy’s store or in a magician’s castle in that experience, as we were absorbed in the sheer physicality of music being created, as though almost seeing the sounds appear and evaporate from those beautiful organ pipes in the Royal Festival Hall. Many people stayed to discover the details of organ constuction, and I bet they would have climbed upward to do more on the investigation front if the forces of gravity were not opposing their curiosity. A thought came to my mind that may be auditory perception could be complemented by tactile and visual experiences in concerts of the future, and may be listening to an organ – an instrument that is physically spread in space, while impossible to reach or grasp – is a good way to begin explorations in this area.

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