This Southbank concert from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was characterised by two themes. Firstly, and most obviously, the repertoire was exclusively Russian Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila overture, a Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto and a Rachmaninov Symphony and secondly each composition had flopped at its premiere.Of course, works that experience early failure and then go on to enjoy belated success are not extraordinary in the world of classical music, or indeed that of the arts more generally. The striking thing here was that each of these pieces is not just widely appreciated but is now known by a popular extract in the case of the Glinka, it is the extract itself.
The Ruslan and Lydmila overture is a brisk little tit-bit that has become dislocated from the ill-fated opera to which it was initially attached and is often put to good use, as it was here, as an impressive curtain-raiser. Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto followed. Completed in 1874, this piece was criticised and ridiculed by the famous pianist Nikolay Rubinstein, much to Tchaikovsky’s shame. Now, of course, the piece is regarded as canonical, and known above all for its final movement.
In Freddy Kempf we had the charisma that is required of the soloist, even if this came at the expense of deep introspection. Any performance of this impressive and demanding piece is fantastic to watch, let alone listen to, but there is something especially magnetic about Kempf’s stage presence. Throughout, conductor Andrew Litton seemed to favour volume and panache over sensitivity, but it was a wise approach that situated the piece well within the context of the programme and suited Kempf’s own interpretation.
Rachmaninov once described himself as feeling like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien and his Second Symphony was certainly badly received by a public that were being seduced by the musical avant-garde. Although this piece has subsequently gained favour, few would disagree that it lacks the imaginative scope of Sibelius’ contemporary works. Indeed, the work can easily become indulgent, but Litton and the RPO never let it linger and a slight astringency in their sound worked in its favour.