Risk-Taking Pays Dividends in Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov

11/02/2017

Smetana, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky: Simon Trpčeski (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Cornelius Meister (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 10.2.2017. (SRT)

Smetana – The Bartered Bride Overture

Rachmaninov – Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.4 Op.36

I’d come across Cornelius Meister several years ago in Vienna, conducting what is now his own orchestra (the ORF Vienna RSO), so was looking forward to hearing him making a rare Scottish appearance. The Bartered Bride Overture that opened this concert didn’t speak of anything particularly special, however. It was a perfectly fine rendition of a piece that’s hard to do badly, despite the slightly cloudy ensemble during the scurrying pianissimo strings at the beginning.

His Tchaikovsky 4, however, was the best I’ve heard in a while. He approached it like a German, with a keen ear for the architecture and an eye for the big picture, producing something that might not have been true to the precise letter of the score but which was nevertheless very effective. The opening fanfare not only pinned me to the back of my seat but made the scalp prickle in a way it seldom does, partly because it was taken daringly slowly and, therefore, was made the work’s centrepiece from the outset. The main string theme was also more stately than you normally hear it, but seemed to unfold with a dramatist’s touch, as though telling a story, and the balletic second subject had a lolloping air to it that offset the winds very effectively.  His coda was fast but intense, with an ending that seemed unarguable, and which was allowed to hand in the air for a long time before the oboe solo that opened the second movement (played by a principal oboe who seemed not to need to breathe).  The strings were deep and soulful for this movement, then fizzingly light in the Scherzo, and the finale was euphoric but always controlled, with the return of the Fate theme making a slow climax. Perhaps the conductor’s tempo relations were a little unorthodox, and this was definitely Tchaikovsky alla Meister, but I thought it worked very well, and the orchestra played out of their skins for him.

Perhaps the explanation for such an increase in quality between these two pieces was the intervening Paganini Rhapsody with Simon Trpčeski making his RSNO debut, and tinkling the ivories with such a relaxed air as to make it all seem so easy. Trpčeski didn’t approach the piece like a conventional concerto, but like a first-among-equals, relishing his interplay with the different orchestral sections, and making me hear the piece for the first time as though it were a Concerto for Orchestra rather than for piano. Like the conductor, Trpčeski played the piece like a storyteller, unfolding the whole work in big blocks, like a symphony, and never playing with the ostentatiousness that drew attention to himself, stepping back and letting the strings take the limelight in the great 18th variation, for example. He then surprised us all with two unusual encores, for both of which he had partners. Principal cello Aleksei Kiseliov joined him for a surging performance of the famous slow movement of Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata, and then he played Brahms’ fifth Hungarian Dance in a piano duet with Meister himself, with whom he seemed about to do a comedy routine as they both struggled to fit onto the piano stool. This all made for a great evening’s music, however, and shows the RSNO is still managing to punch well above its weight in the quality of the guest artists it attracts.

Simon Thompson

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