Tonight’s concert by the RSNO is their last major one of 2016, and includes two major works of the repertoire. However, we start with Zoltán Kodály’s Dances of Galánta, which were composed in 1933. Like his compatriot Béla Bartók, Kodály was fascinated by the folk tunes of his country and spent time collecting and categorising them, in a similar way to Vaughan Williams in England. This fascination permeates these dances: there is a lot of rhythmic energy, and the folk tunes are presented in various, colourful guises. Mention here must be made of the RSNO’s principal clarinettist, for his starring role.
Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto fills the first half. It had a long gestation period, from 1804 to 1807. It follows his remarkable fourth symphony, and is similarly radical. There is no orchestral preamble as one would expect in a classical concerto. Beethoven nails his colours to the mast, letting the piano begin with a sequence of chords that echo his Eroica symphony. There is emotional depth, bravura piano dexterity, and the most sublime delicacy. All this brought out by the flawless technique and consummate musicality of German pianist Lars Vogt: he brings a wonderful filigree quality to all the pianissimo textures, as well as great weight to the bigger passages. He makes the piano sing and brings the music vividly to life. Truly special.
The concert concludes with another part of the RSNO’s current Russian theme: Rachmaninov’s last work, the Symphonic Dances. They were composed in 1940 and premiered in Philadelphia in 1941. The composer was in exile in California, but his heart turned to his deep Russian roots. Some have said that this is his fourth symphony in all but name, but it is not. Rather like Stravinsky, he has a feeling for the tunes and dances of his homeland.
A critic once said that its supposedly unconnected three movements used “weird sounds”. Of course they do! They tie up old sounds (like much use of the piano—Rachmaninov’s own instrument) and new ones (the enormous use of percussion and saxophone), to produce what the composer originally subtitled Noon, Twilight and Midnight.
Their dance element was inspired by the choreographer Michel Fokine, who had already used the Paganini Variations in dance. There is dance, but also reflection, especially in the last dance where Rachmaninov uses his favourite theme: the Dies Irae (day of wrath) Gregorian chant—it appears in the Paganini Variations too.
Whilst the last dance starts dark and brooding, the chant conquers in a brilliant and joyous climax with the percussion on top form, the tam-tam having the last laugh. This is a terrific performance all round, brilliantly conducted by the young Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payare. It is such a shame, however, that many of audience leave at half time.