“The playing’s the thing…”
Friday night is music night – well pretty much every night is actually – at the Usher Hall, but it is also RSNO night and this last Friday they played a successful combination of the well known, the eccentric, and the obscure.
Let’s start with the obscure. Our evening kicked off with Rodion Schredrin’s Concerto for Orchestra No 1 “Ozorniye Chatuski”, roughly (but appropriately) translated as Naughty Limericks, the music being based on short and bawdy popular songs. Had you heard of Shchedrin? Did you know that, unlike Shostakovich, he had few problems with the State authorities, or that Leonard Bernstein was a fan? I confess I didn’t, and I warmed to this delightful eight-minute pastiche that certainly had shades of not only Bernstein’s West Side Story but also Walton’s Facade. The RSNO played with precision and affection that set us up well for the evening.
There followed what I suspect everybody came for, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor. This is a glorious piece, Rachmaninov’s passport to his new life in the USA, and premiered with him soloing with the New York Symphony Orchestra under Walther Damrosch in 1909. The work is so gorgeously, gloriously and unashamedly romantic that it is tempting, especially for the younger soloist, to ham it up. Hats off, then, to the 31 year old Boris Giltburg, Russian born but now based in Tel Aviv, whose performance was restrained, measured and perfectly controlled so that you felt that it was the composer rather than the soloist speaking to you. The slower than normal tempo of the opening Allegro ma non tanto allowed clear as a bell timbre in terms of notation and phrasing so that you felt you were really getting to the music rather than being overwhelmed by romantic mush. The long solo passages again made you feel you could hear every note in every chord with extraordinary attention to detail with well judged and never over the top expression. The young man demonstrated maturity beyond his years and true artistic humility that won the hearts of audience and orchestra alike. His encore was an extraordinary exercise in bravura.
And what of the orchestra? I would describe their playing as both totally integrated with the soloist but also supportive, with solo wind, especially flute and cor anglais, almost curling round the piano part as if they were dancing together. The strings brought out everything we wanted to hear but rightly stopped just short of Hollywood. Percussion and brass were necessarily bold and strong. We heard the piece uncut, symphonic in length and also stature.
Following the interval came Shostakovich’s Symphony No 6. Shostakovich wrote a patchwork quilt of fifteen symphonies from the full on 5th, 7th and 8th to the miniscule 15th. The sixth comes stylistically somewhere near the latter, a mere 35 minutes and three movements, but to their credit guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto and the RSNO made me take this eccentric work more seriously than before. A sombre first movement with a broad, bleak opening line from the violas and cellos followed by sparse, exposed flute and trumpet made this a signature Shostakovich work. As it progressed we were given some lighter relief in terms of joyful woodwind and even humorous, full on brass, resounding tam tam and timpani. A short work rich in contrasts and emotions, well played.
This was a surprisingly good concert given, or maybe because of, the choice of programme. I was impressed by the depth of the interpretations of the Shchedrin and Shostakovich, and the restraint and maturity shown in the Rachmaninov. So I wondered, what makes a successful concert? Programming, interpretation, of course, but perhaps above all the degree of engagement between players, soloist and conductor, and above all between players and audience. The orchestra and their guest conductor clearly had an excellent rapport, as did they with us, rewarding us with a delightful Chabrier style parody encore. So the engagement, and to misquote Hamlet, “the playing’s the thing”. Well played.
Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 26 February)
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