Everything was coming along nicely for Plymouth Symphony Orchestra’s regular November date in the Guildhall. In fact I had only just posted on social media, where I alluded to some welcome Sicilian sunshine on the day, courtesy of the Sicilian-born pianist joining the orchestra in Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2.
Perhaps I was tempting fate, but, literally at the eleventh hour, the pianist sustained an injury which meant he was unable to perform. Now, we’re all used to the concept of locum pharmacists, GPs, or bank nurses, and which normally works well in covering an unexpected absence. But the chances of there being another pianist who would know the work intimately, and was also free on the night are not normally that good.
But, as with a lot of musical works and operas, a fairy-tale ending is still possible, and after a deal of searching, Romania, rather than Sicily now became the focal point, when UK-based Romanian pianist Mihai Ritivoiu agreed to step in, much to the relief of everyone who had worked so hard in rehearsal for this final performance.
But they weren’t quite out of the woods yet, since conductor Anne Kimber was nursing an injured knee, which would surely have impaired her mobility somewhat, and, to cap it all, there had been a couple of serious traffic accidents around the city, temporarily paralysing routes into town, potentially threatening a delayed start.
When planning the programme, Anne would not have known of any of these events that could have really caused major problems on the night. But, with the adrenaline already pumping high, the players certainly used this to their advantage in the opening work, Wagner’s majestic Tannhäuser Overture. Here the brass certainly gave their all, as did woodwind and strings. PSO’s string section is, in fact, a really strong body, well-disciplined, and capable of the widest dynamic range, and a rich, full tone when needed. Wagner certainly takes no prisoners as far as the strings are concerned, but the PSO players quitted themselves well, and certainly the reading was never short on enthusiasm and spirit, for which the evening’s leader Dawn Ashby deserves a great deal of the credit.
Impetus and virtuosity
Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2 isn’t quite in the same category as Rachmaninov’s Second, or Third Concertos, with respect to level of difficulty, but it’s still decidedly tricky, much of it taken at a very rapid pace, with some irregular time-signatures in the finale, and lots of quick ‘question and answer’ interchanges between soloist and orchestra. Lose the plot for a split second, and everything could grind to a halt. But equally it’s such an ebullient, high-spirited piece overall, that to go for a safe performance simply risks jeopardising all of the work’s spontaneity and joie de vivre in the outer movements. It certainly felt as if the plan was simply to ‘go for it’, as the resulting performance could scarcely have had greater impetus, or shown more virtuosity.
A fair amount of the writing is by way of piano scales and exercises up and down the keyboard, all of which Mihai despatched with the greatest élan, even if on just the odd occasion his efforts were drowned out by the orchestra, though, to be fair, only in general ‘tutti’ passages, rather than where the piano had something specific to say. I had mentioned the slow movement as being ‘one of those to die for’, and this performance really tugged at the heartstrings, it being so highly-charged emotionally. Soloist and orchestra were as one here, and it was a very special moment for anyone for whom the movement had particular poignant associations. The drawn-out standing ovation for the pianist was thoroughly deserved, and a special word of commendation must go to Anne and her loyal band of players, for providing Mihai with such sympathetic and well-crafted support.
As a pianist, and someone with a particular penchant for Shostakovich’s concerto, I could hardly imagine that the second half could possibly equal, let alone eclipse the first. Beethoven’s glorious ‘Eroica’ Symphony is a well-tried warhorse in symphonic repertoire, with familiar tunes, and all the right heroic traits that its original dedication to Napoleon would have been deemed prerequisites. For whatever reason, this was destined to become one of those special one-off performances you can get at any artistic level, but you definitely know when you’ve been a part of it. There was wonderful breadth in the expansive string melody at the start, and the three horns were very much on song here, and particularly in their ‘party piece’ in the third movement Trio, where, especially for the first horn, it’s all about the thrill of a circus aerial performer without a safety net. Even the slow movement – cast as a Funeral March – was especially moving, and despite its slow tempo, never dragged or caused the audience to take refuge in reading their programmes – always a sure-fire clue when you’ve lost your audience’s attention. The finale rounded everything off to perfection, where Anne ensured that the linear clarity was always well-defined, and that the movement’s characteristically drawn-out conclusion sounded perfectly natural, rather than stilted in performance. After the final chord, you could really sense the frisson of excitement as players and audience alike started to vacate the stage and auditorium, and make their way into the cold night air.
It was so heartening to see a large audience present, and who clearly appeared to enjoy this programme of popular works. If there was one criticism, it was at the very start of the performance, and has happened in the venue before.
The Government Health and Safety Executive has a series of recommendations and procedures to disseminate basic safety information to public audiences, before even a note is played. It suggests having a ‘pre-agreed wording’ for such announcements, and recommends ‘considering lines of communications – for example, radios or PA systems’.
Delivering this vital information without any form of amplification is both totally unacceptable, and embarrassing for the speaker, who, it would seem, hadn’t taken a dedicated course in public address, thus causing a rightly-annoyed audience member at the back of the hall to bellow that they couldn’t hear anything being said. This was the only way to make the speaker aware, but surely the provision of a radio mike, or even one with a trailing lead wouldn’t be too much to expect in the city’s only ‘concert hall’. Equally while we were given some details about the replacement pianist, I doubt whether everyone heard every single word there either.
Plymouth Symphony Orchestra prides itself on its amateur status, although everything about it aspires towards a truly professional approach. Therefore it seems such a pity that it is let down each time at the start, by something that couldn’t in fact appear more amateur.
PSO with Mihai Ritivoiu (piano), where at Plymouth Guildhall
Philip R Buttall
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