Tonight’s concert is another piece of imaginative programming from the RSNO’s artistic team. We start with a fantastic piece—and performance of—Finnish composer Einar Englund’s 1962 Suite, from his score for a film called Pojat, set in Finland during the Second World War. Its six short movements are highly colourful, with marches, laments and triumphant brass scoring. Virtually unknown to many, this was a revelation. The first movement uses the tune Frère Jacques to great effect.
The Prokofiev piano cycle finishes tonight with its finest—number three—with the formidable Nikolai Lugansky as solost. Although composed in Prokofiev’s temporary home in Paris, it was in fact premièred in Chicago with the composer as soloist. The three movements are highly virtuosic: there are torrents of exceedingly fast piano figuration in the outer moments (the last with some enormous glissandi) and they are staggeringly energetic—enough to take one’s breath away.
The middle movement is a gavotte, cast as a set of colourful variations, which shows the composer’s fertile imagination and wit. There is nod towards Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody, and some of the piano writing seems to pre-empt Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. This is a great end to this cycle, and Lugansky’s many ovations are richly deserved. Autumn from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons is a fitting encore, and a super contrast to what had come before.
The second half is given over to Mahler’s first symphony, first performed in 1889. It’s a perennial favourite, and deservedly so. It embraces everything, working through a whole variety of musical styles: marching bands, dances and, most importantly, Mahler’s obsession with folk songs, including some from his own song cycle, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. As in the Englund, the third movement’s funeral march uses Frère Jacques: a nice link.
The last movement is a towering work, with stomy drama and reminiscences from the first movement, before it ends heroically in a blaze of glory, with the large brass section and two sets of timpani going at full tilt. Although there are some stodgy bits of conducting, which let a few bits lag, it is all in all a good end to a very good concert.