It was a little odd, perhaps, that for this second in the RSNO's great concerto series, the rather effective decision to place the concerto at the end of the concert, as happened with the Emperor two weeks ago, wasn't repeated. After all, the concert was marketed as John Lill Plays Tchaikovsky, and certainly the famous first piano concerto will have been the primary drawn for many. Then again, given the performance it received, this was not as much a handicap as might have been the case.
The evening began, however, with Beethoven's Coriolan overture. Unfortunately, this proved a damp squib in the hands of young conductor Krzysztof Urbański (more than giving Robin Ticciati a run for his money in the 'how young can the conductor look' stakes despite actually being older, though with the leather jacket clad publicity shot he is perhaps trying for a different image). His style on the podium was very odd, marked by extremely jagged and angular movements. He clearly wanted abrupt chords and pauses, but if this was intended to engender suspense and excitement it failed. Most of all, he needs to learn how to hold a pause to maximum effect, or indeed, any effect other than sucking the life out of the music. When I tweeted to this effect, someone replied that it was Coriolan, what did I expect? Not a bit of it: in my view, this is a thrilling piece, or can be. This is a ludicrously unfair comparison, but Furtwangler, knew how to hold a pause to the point where you are on the edge of your seat with tension before crashing in with such force as to knock you right out of it. It wasn't just about pauses though, the whole thing felt dull and lifeless. More fair would be to note that even a then 24 year old Daniel Harding was capable of delivering an account fizzing excitement.
Urbański seemed much more fluid and at ease in Tchaikovsky's famous and rather overplayed first piano concerto. In addition, he got some impressive and exciting moments in the bigger climax. In the softer passages, though, he was less persuasive. In the solo part, John Lill was okay, but next to Paul Lewis's masterclass in clarity and poetry two weeks ago he was rather bland. More critically, at many of the quicker tempi in the outer movements, his playing became rather muddy, almost as though his fingers weren't quite quick enough. He was much more impressive in the slow movement, displaying both a nice delicacy and a sparkle. The major problem was familiarity. Here comparison with the Emperor is instructive. Both are so often-played, over-familiar, that artists really need to have something to say in order to stand out, otherwise they risk blandness. Two weeks ago Lewis and Deneve did; last night Lill and Urbański did not. That said, much the rest of the audience seemed far more convinced.
They finished up with Dvořák's fifth symphony. On the one hand it's nice to be getting a decent bit of Dvořák lately. On the other, the fifth is far from my favourite of his works. Few question the greatness of the last three symphonies (as commonly numbered) and I would say the sixth stands at the same level, though it is played much less frequently. The first four are often dismissed, though I think the first is a masterpiece. The fifth seems to divide opinion - I was in a discussion the other day where some felt it absolutely ranked with the late works while others didn't rate it so highly. If there is a case to be made for its greatness, Urbański didn't make it. The big climaxes were certainly quite exciting, but they were not without their problems. Most notable was a poor orchestral balance. The string sound, and it must be said it was a very fine and rich sound, often washed out too much of everything else. At times, such as a wonderful moment with the winds at the end of the first movement, it came together beautifully, but too often details in Dvořák's writing slipped through the cracks. The finale was, for the most part, significantly tighter and suffered less from this problem (though a few minutes before the end it slipped back again before a compelling final few bars). In addition, while there was excitement at times, there didn't seem to be the over-arching sense of structure that would have maintained the drama as much as can be the case.
In short, it was a rather disappointing evening and I'll not be hurrying back to hear Urbański again.
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