Sunday, 18 May 2014

Review: Andrei Gavrilov with the Bristol Ensemble (18-5-14)

When I first heard that the great Russian pianist Andrei Gavrilov was going to play the two hardest piano concerti ever written in one single concert, I was fascinated. Later on, when I heard that he would attempt the monumental feat without a conductor I was utterly shocked at the thought of such a concert. I was really looking forward to this concert, and I can say that I’ve never quite seen anything like it.

The Russian master Andrei Gavrilov

The Bristol Ensemble conducted by the pianist himself and led by violinist Roger Huckle started the evening of Russian music off by playing Mussorgsky’s “Night on a bare mountain” with flaming bravado and true Sturm und Drang. The technicalities of the piece were well executed by the orchestra, and the piece was conducted most extraordinarily by Gavrilov, demonstrating his overflowing musicality and passion. His freedom in leadership and his total dedication to the mood and atmosphere of the music was captivating to watch and created an instant bond with the audience, creating a thoroughly enjoyable experience.  Perhaps a minor drawback was the lack of power from the string section, but I can almost certainly say that this was due to the hall or to the amount of players (4 desks of first violins).

Then Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto commenced, with its loud brass figure at the beginning followed by punching and then lyrical strings. Gavrilov started, and filled the hall with his sound, playing musically and virtuosically. The music all seemed to flow naturally, with the piano cadenzas captivating the audience and prompting me to the edge of my seat. This was a sophisticated yet zesty performance, with a flawless third movement and a lyrical and rich second movement.

However, Gavrilov’s sound was too aggressive and eager, probably due to the rather timid piano and the lack of a lid. At times, the attack was too much, and the sound drowned itself out, not allowing a full sound to be produced and blurring some faster passages. I can see why Gavrilov would do this, as the piano had to be heard amidst the orchestra and its fiery playing. In spite of this, I do feel that the sound could have been more moderate. 
Having said this, I would much prefer this to be played with Gavrilov’s ebullient sense of performance and musicality however loudly and roughly, than with a shyer and less passionate approach.

Following this captivating display came the outstanding performance of Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto. This was tamer, with a less vigorous approach, which I personally preferred. The first movement was taken at a perhaps faster tempo than usual, which created a brilliant effect and allowed the piece to flow much more easily. The second movement was rapturous, and Gavrilov’s conducting really took the Bristol Ensemble to another level. This swiftly progressed to the vivacious third movement, which was euphorically performed with an incredible musical and technical prowess from Gavrilov. The orchestra adhered to Gavrilov’s musical decisions wonderfully, and performed on a different level than usual. This was also done in the Tchaikovsky. Solos were handled very well, and Roger Huckle led accurately and coherently from the front desk of the first violins, assuming an instrumental role in the performance. The lack of conductor somehow brought the orchestra and the soloist together, creating an essentially intimate affair which led to a musically enthralling performance. 

The whole piece finished fantastically with Gavrilov creating an explosion of sound and playing brilliantly. He captured the essence of the music and was able to transmit that to the audience, even if it meant snapping a string at the end and leaving the piano rather traumatised!

After a standing ovation from the audience and persistent clapping, Gavrilov returned to the stage and performed an exciting encore (Prokofiev?) in a dramatic, but musically sincere way. This adventurous and essentially fun piece finished the evening with a clear message: Gavrilov was enjoying himself, and with his novel but rousing conducting technique and his gobsmacking virtuosity he was able to make the audience enjoy themselves in this unforgettable concert.