Slow and steady wins the race, so the fable tells us.
It’s also what’s been uppermost in my mind listening to the latest live recording from the London Philharmonic Orchestra released this month. Both of the late-Aldo Ciccolini’s performances on the album have a sedate elegance to them that yields detail in both the keyboard and orchestrations – an enlightening study.
Where that slow and steady strategy really pays dividends is during the performance of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto recorded in May 2009 when the pianist was 81.
It’s not an entirely faultless rendition. There are one or two duff notes in the left hand, and there are moments when orchestra and piano have a bit of a tussle over speed. It’s as though the orchestra doesn’t quite agree with the more deliberate pace the pianist has adopted. You might notice that most in the first movement when the broad expansive subject we all recognise the work for returns mid-way through.
The clarinet solo in the second movement with a tauter than normal tonal range depicts a lonely fragile figure uncertain how to approach the world. This is where the performance departs from most other interpretations to my mind. Most embrace the sentimentality in the melody and harmonic accompaniment and ramp it up.
The second movement in this performance goes the other way, reducing the sentimentality to create an emotional range that is far more compact than anything I’ve heard before, creating something far more personal and fragile in the process. That makes the narrative more believable – something we can relate to because it avoids cliché and pursues something more authentic.
When the delicate high strings return with the main melody shortly before the end of the second movement there’s a sense we’re clinging on by our fingertips.
The subdued conclusion we hear at the end of the second movement makes for a far less bombastic third movement – one that rejects the usual fast-paced self-absorbed bluster. At a slower pace we’re treated to the finer details of the orchestration especially in the celli and trumpets. Here we appreciate the detail in Rachmaninov’s rhythmic patterns – details usually lost in more fierce interpretations. The complexities in the piano line are revealed too underlining the Rachmaninov’s original compositional achievement.
Once again, by resisting the temptation to over-sentimentalise a sense of energy and drive is retained. As a result when we do reach the conclusion there’s a feeling of a job well done – a solid unequivocal kind of achievement.
Listen to Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Aldo Ciccolini on Idagio
Listen to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.20 played by Aldo Ciccolini and the London Philharmonic Orchestra on Idagio
The entire album is also available via Spotify