“the playing was of the highest calibre…….”
“If music be the food of love, play on…” Yes, that’s from “Twelfth Night”, for love was the leitmotif of Friday evening’s RSNO concert at the Usher Hall, but the principal vehicle was that most famous love story of all, of Juliet and her Romeo.
While many others, from Gounod to Leonard Bernstein, have told this tale in musical form, there is no doubt that within the classical arena it is Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev who hold sway and these two were the chosen representatives for this part of the evening’s programme.
The concert opened with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy. Tchaikovsky abandoned plans for an opera, never mind a ballet, and yet this 20 minute work is like a short, single movement symphony. Not telling the story as such, it portrays its three main elements: the solemnity and compassion of the Friar, the passion of the young lovers, and the festering hostility between the Montagues and Capulets.
RSNO Music Director Peter Oundjian chose to interpret this magnificent work conservatively and thereby avoided the emotion and thrills one might expect from, say, a Russian orchestra. As a consequence one found oneself wanting more, particularly from the all important flutes. There were issues of balance among woodwind and brass, and a generally slow tempo. Perhaps, inevitably, the band was settling in.
In between the Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev came the brilliantly chosen Khachaturian Piano Concerto. The concerto, written some eighty years ago, was an ambitious attempt to blend Caucasian folk music influences within a bravura Liszt style masterwork. It arguably doesn’t quite bring it off, but is high on excitement, melody and romance, and is more akin to Prokofiev than the oft compared Tchaikovsky. A clever piece of transitional programming.
It was with a sense of joy (and a bit of relief) that here, as for the rest of the evening, the RSNO gave of their very best. The playing was taut, together, focussed. Brass and woodwind complementing each other perfectly, a warm bass clarinet providing rich undertones for the clear and bright strings.
Soloist Xiayin Wang gave an exciting, bravura and thoroughly comprehensive interpretation in her high octane premiere performance of the work. After the wake up call of the Allegro ma non troppo e maestoso we were soothed by the tender and melodic Andante con anima before the joyful resolution of the familiar third movement, appropriately designated as Allegro brilliante. Orchestral accompaniment was punctuated by two extensive solo interludes, if not quite cadenzas, which the soloist disposed of magnificently. As a result I got more from work than ever before, and now consider it as far more than just Prokofiev-lite, and had the privilege of telling the soloist so as she charmingly and modestly mingled with us in the interval, sipping from a bottle of mineral water and shimmering in her gown.
Following the interval we were treated to a suite of 20 excerpts from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet that included some of its most romantic, accessible passages, until thirty minutes in, the bleak, searing awfulness of Tybalt’s Death hit us right between the eyes. Again, perhaps a little more restrained than a Russian orchestra might portray it, nonetheless, the RSNO’s playing was of the highest calibre: rich, flowing cadences, a silvery sheen on the strings, well balanced, richly toned woodwind and brass, and in the background the tuba and timpani sounding like a death knell.
Taken as a whole this was a cleverly programmed and highly effective concert that showed the RSNO’s playing, when into its stride, as being of the very finest. Kicking off with the Tchaikovsky demands a leap of faith and perhaps a little less caution. Nonetheless we had a glorious, generously programmed evening. There was a real lift to my walk home across the Meadows.
Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 6 November)
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