RSNO. Jensen. Lugansky: Usher Hall 4 Nov ’16.


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“The RSNO is maintaining an extraordinarily high standard of repertoire and performance”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars

The RSNO’s 2016/17 season continues apace with intelligent programming and excellent playing. On Friday we also had significant added value inasmuch as we heard not one but two piano concertos, in a splendid celebration of Russian music from the first half of the 20th century.

The orchestra led off with The Enchanted Lake by Anatoli Liadov. Liadov was an enigma with a somewhat mystical approach to life as well as music, delighted to maintain that “Art is a figment, a fairy tale, a phantom. Give me a fairy tale, a dragon, a water sprite, a wood demon – give me something that is unreal, and I am happy.”  And sure enough, The Enchanted Lake follows no clear story and is an impressionistic portrait of a magical lake populated by all manner of water nymphs and wood sprites. It is a gentle piece that has evocations of Delius’s Walk to the Paradise Garden written some eight years earlier in 1901. The RSNO’s playing was suitably, lyrically, intoned as we settled comfortably in our seats.

We were rapidly shaken out of them by Nicolai Lugansky’s bravura rendition of Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto. “Nicolai has been coming to us for twenty years” one of the RSNO staffers enthusiastically told me, and it is commendable that this orchestra has such long-standing relationships with star players. Clearly this is reciprocated, because Lugansky learnt the work by heart in a week before the concert.

The work is of mixed quality and rather bitty. Five movements in twenty-five minutes, but only the last two are of any substance. There is far more “music” in the first concerto, a 15-minute work but less slender, which came after the interval. Nonetheless Lugansky took hold of it, easily disposing of its demanding notation, with the orchestra providing enthusiastic support. The fourth movement Larghetto was the most melodic, at least at the start until it built into a strong climax. The fifth, appropriately named Vivo, provided a lively conclusion.

After the interval the indomitable Lugansky appeared again for  Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto, the more rounded one. This 15-minute tour de force is an object lesson in less means more, and much as I enjoy the other four concerti this one stirs me most. From its confident three chord brass opening in D flat major the piano and orchestra belted out the near frantic theme in unison until the orchestra took off on its own with the soloist following in a series of bravura passages, pausing only for a few minutes’ reflection in the second section of what is really a one-movement work. It was a joyride: taut, together, highly effective orchestral playing under the confident and relaxed baton of Eivind Gullberg Jensen, with soloist Lubansky clearly a master of his art. The theme sang out again when the pace returned in the third section and ended in a blaze of glory with the addition of glockenspiel.

The evening was brought to a close by Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony, premiered in 1936 by no less than Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and by a short head the most recently composed piece of the evening. Rachmaninov was a master of the romantic genre and this work is close to film music, and none the worse for it. However, unlike the utterly romantic Second Symphony with its long melodic lines, this pleasing work is full of thematic variations that never really go anywhere, so you are subjected to a series of treats rather than an enveloping whole. The RSNO were completely at home with it, from the opening cello solo (the first movement is all down to the cellos), through the wistful horn and harp opening of the second, concluding with the zestful Allegro with the orchestra giving everything it had got. This is a more reflective, even introspective work than the second symphony, which nonetheless, and notwithstanding the stature of the second symphony, contains some of the most expressive and romantic classical music ever written.

The RSNO is maintaining an extraordinarily high standard of repertoire and performance, worthy of its pedigree and 125th Year Anniversary.

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 4 November)

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