London Philharmonic on top form

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Pianist Kirill Gerstein brought a sense of exhilaration and freshness to Rachmaninoff’s well-worn Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini as The London Philharmonic delivered a fine performance at The Dome.

Either side of its most popular, sweeping romantic theme, Gerstein gave his all as he stretched his playing almost to realms of jazz, with plenty of attack and a wonderful spirit of adventure.

Conductor Vasily Petrenko coaxed controlled power out of an orchestra that sounded at the top of its form, and in the slower passages drew out a sense of tenderness without the tone of the Philharmonic becoming twee. With Gerstein showing such exuberant energy, there was plenty of joy infused into the playing.

Brahms had, of course, written a Paganini Variation of his own for solo piano, but it was the orchestra’s superb working of his complex Symphony Number 2, considered by many critics to be his best, which brought sustained applause from the appreciative audience. Petrenko drew out both the light and the hints of melancholy, at times seeming to move his arms in slow motion easing his musicians down from another peak of brass-infused power to moments of beguiling charm.

Some lovely, haunting horn was set against the elegance of the strings, cellos, and double basses, with bassoon and other woodwind contributions giving an almost jaunty air at times. Buzzing basses, whirring strings and booming brass were brought smoothly through transition from power plays into gentle moods captured by woodwind and violins. It was all utterly captivating and the purest expression of Brahms anyone could wish to enjoy.

In the opening piece to the concert, a whirlwind of strings captured the energy unleashed so early in the Berlioz Overture Le Corsaire, before the subtle woodwind and strings settled into tranquillity. It didn’t last as the brass, whipped up by the strings, later propelled the piece to a dramatic finish that set a tone of excellence for a wonderful evening of music making.

By Phil Dennett