Alexander Markovich; London Philharmonic Orchestra / Järvi

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No 1; Mahler: Symphony No 1

Royal Festival Hall, 24 October 2007 2 stars

Alexander Markovich

Before this concert, I was not familiar with the pianist Alexander Markovich. Judging from his illustrious biography though, I felt entitled to expect something rather more from his playing of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto. Although the famous opening was full-toned and despatched with a certain steely bravura, the rest of his performance failed to deliver. Apart from anything else, he seemed stretched technically and there were really more fluffs and smudges than I would deem acceptable for a musician performing at this level.

This technical insecurity resulted in a performance of this concerto which was totally lacking in imagination and delicacy. The big double octave passages thundered but Markovich seemed unable to produce an attractive sound from the piano for much of the rest of the time. His phrasing was lumpy (even in the most straightforward appearances of the Andantino's theme) and his treatment, for example, of the contrapuntal writing in the first movement's cadenza was loud and unsubtle in the extreme. The prestissimo section in the second movement, which should be fleet-footed and mercurial, was all hammered out at an unrelenting fortissimo – more Donner than Loge - with a lack of clarity and accuracy.

It was a performance that seemed to highlight all of the work's weaknesses. This concerto is no masterpiece but usually convinces by dint of its melodic writing and Tchaikovskian charm; its bravura passages are probably the weakest moments. Therefore a performance which fails to render melodies musically or display the slightest glint in its eye in response to that charm is never going to convince. The bravura passages came off best, albeit with the unwelcome edge-of-the-seat excitement of wondering where the next mistake would come, but without being persuaded of the quality of their context, they just came across as empty rhetoric.

This was an extremely disappointing and rather depressing performance and it seemed especially ill-conceived for Markovich, egged on it seemed more by conductor Neeme Järvi than any enthusiasm from the audience, to perform an encore – something based loosely on Isolde's Liebestod (not the Liszt transcription, I wondered if it was by Markovich himself) which sorely emphasised the pianist's inability to coax a seductive sound from the instrument. Throughout the first half, the London Philharmonic Orchestra played perfectly well under Järvi; their effort, however, seemed a little superfluous.

The orchestra was given its chance to shine, however, in the second half in Mahler's First Symphony, here performed with the discarded 'Blumine' movement. It strikes me as odd that the decision to include this, 'an "alien" movement, quite properly ejected by Mahler after 1894' (Donald Mitchell), was taken without at least some attempt at justification in the programme. All we get is a short description and account of its origins in some now lost incidental music. Regardless of evidence that several scholars have used to back up the case for not including the movement, there is a compelling musical case that anyone can formulate for themselves by just hearing it. It's reasonably picturesque, with a charming trumpet theme (it occurred originally as a moonlight serenade) but distinctly unsymphonic. It unnecessarily elongates the work and holds up Mahler's symphonic argument.

The rest of the symphony was performed with real commitment by the LPO. Järvi's interpretation kept the rustic first movement moving and the big climaxes were well judged (the horns particularly fine in their big themes, playing with greater verve than at last week's 'Resurrection' Symphony). These virtues were carried into the Ländler second (or here third) movement, buoyant and eminently enjoyable, even if exuberance in the reprise led to a few inaccuracies.

The penultimate movement, the funeral march based famously on an Austrian version of Frére Jaques, was simply too fast. This not only undermined its character but also reduced the contrast between the mock solemnity of the opening and the ironic, gipsy-like strains of the faster march sections which so confounded critics at the work's premiere. Järvi tried to introduce some flexibility with rubato going from section to section but at this fast basic tempo, he'd put himself in a rhythmic strait-jacket from which there was no escape.

The Finale was played thrillingly enough, gamely following Mahler's requests in his score for various theatrical effects (the horns standing up at the end, for example). However, enjoyable on its own terms though it was, the various interpretative decisions made earlier in the symphony meant that this finale was stripped of the cumulative effect that should underpin and validate the undeniable excitement on the surface.

By Hugo Shirley