Saturday, 3 January 2009


30/11/08, RFH

2hrs approx (it was supposed to start at 19.30 but began late; we were out just before 21.50). Prokofiev, Autumnal; Rachmaninov Piano Concerto no 3 (soloist Simon Trpceski); Tchaikovsky Symphony no 4.

In the bar beforehand a woman came up with her husband and said she recognised me. Said she was only asking because she’d had the same surname before she was married, and the name was rare: she’d never met another she wasn’t related to. Her lot came from Worsley in Lancashire but we seemed to have no relatives in common. The husband I think was embarrassed that she’d introduced herself but she was very jolly. I was embarrassed because I haven’t shaved today.

The Prokofiev came and went. Inoffensive but unmemorable. Only about seven minutes. 40 strings, seven woodwind, a harp and a trumpet. The moustachioed harpist must be the only male harpist in London. Among the woodwind was an instrument that made an even lower note than a bassoon, apparently played by the oboeist but not listed separately. A lowboe? A basbois? The piece might have made more impression if I hadn’t been distracted by the man sitting immediately in front with his girlfriend, who began by filming the concert and then the pair of them with his digital camera. They canoodled distractingly throughout the concert. We oldies ticked mightily. I shut my eyes some of the time but that just meant I fell asleep.

A great deal of upheaval, half the players (and the harpist) leaving the stage so they can move the piano on. Scarcely seemed worth the trouble doing the Prokofiev at all.

The Rachmaninov played with enormous gusto, D thought very fast, certainly very loudly. If it has a structure I couldn’t discern it: it was just a succession of moments and effects, mostly very striking, but with only one memorable tune – a rather ominous drumbeat-like affair. (As I write this D remembers another tune, marginally more jolly.) Mr Trpceski (of whom we’d never heard) played with great passion, mopping his brow (and the keyboard) with a neatly folded white handkerchief more than once. His great moment the cadenza-like solo in the first movement, immensely long, splendidly bravura playing. When not playing he swayed to the music and swivelled round to look at the audience or the band. He looked less like a musician than an East European short order cook (expression copyright D).

I said confidently that I’d never heard the work in concert. When we got home D produced the programme from the Prom featuring the work that we went to in August.

The band augmented by full brass and timps plus three percussionists – who sat silent until almost the end when the older man addressed the bass drum, the woman deployed the cymbals and the other man… did three bars on the snare drum.

Trpceski played a beautiful encore none of us recognised. Very slow. Very quiet. Very intense. A mobile phone went off during the penultimate note.

Ashkenazy conducts like a marionette or a man learning semaphore. Great sweeping gestures. Then stock still, feet together, arms out, wrists jerkily moving. Then leaning right over. Then bouncing. He’s a smallish man, which may help explain it. A wider repertoire of gesture than almost any conductor I’ve seen.

The Tchaikovsky even noisier than the Rachmaninov, if possible. Band now augmented to 85 players. Great tunes, including the scherzo played pizzicato by the strings throughout (with a couple of interpolations by the woodwind), the fanfares thrown backwards and forwards between the brass and the horns in the first movement and the swaggering last movement, one of Tchaikovsky’s blow ‘em away marches – music to storm Moscow to. S said she thinks he used the same music again (before?) in Sleeping Beauty. D concurs, but thinks it was Romeo & Juliet.

They let the girl have a go on the big drum this time. She, cymbals and triangle all bang on time together on the off beat, so Ashkenazy definitely got that right.

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