PROM 27: The RNSO’s Substantial Prom Includes an Important Première

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Prom 27: Naresh Sohal, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky: Nikolai Lugansky (piano) Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 2.8.2013 (RB)

Naresh Sohal:  The Cosmic Dance (2012-13)
Rachmaninov:  Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op 30
Tchaikovsky:  Symphony No. 5 in E minor Op 64

This concert opened with the Naresh Sohal’s Cosmic Dance which was commissioned by the BBC and was here receiving its world première.  Sohal was born in 1939 in the Punjab and he has written a number of distinguished works for the Proms many of which have been influenced by Indian sacred texts and subject matter.  In the programme notes he talked about the influence of the Rig Veda, a collection of Hindu hymns, on the work.  The Cosmic Dance is in seven movements and it describes no less a subject than the creation of the universe, from the nothingness at the beginning  – referred to in the Rig Veda – followed by the Big Bang and its aftermath; a musical depiction of Galaxies dispersing; and musical portraits of the Milky Way, the Sun, the Moon and  the Earth.  The programme said it would last around 45 minutes but it was just short of an hour.

The work reminded me in some ways of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie with its imaginative use of percussion and exotic musical sound effects but it is less discordant than that work and it has an immediate appeal.  The first three movements also reminded me of Korngold and film music more generally but spiced up to create more of a Bollywood flavour.  The RSNO and Oundjian had clearly prepared the piece well and gave it a glittering outing at this concert.  The alto saxophone set the scene beautifully in the opening movement with a sinuous melody against very soft tremolos, and the orchestra succeeded in working the piece up to give us a rhythmically vibrant and sparkling work.  The percussion section seemed really to be enjoying themselves in creating a collage of exciting sound effects and rhythms and there was some highly virtuosic brass and woodwind playing.  There was some lovely quiet playing in the section depicting the Milky Way, arresting brass playing to depict the Sun and there was a chamber music feel to the penultimate movement portraying the Moon.  The final movement came across as rather fragmented with its use of various forms and motifs – at one point the orchestra seemed to be playing a Straussian waltz – but the musical material and narrative was somehow very compelling and succeeded in winning me over.  This was a great reception for a fantastic new piece of music and it takes Classical music into areas which will have much greater appeal to the general public than the solipsistic abstractions of the Second Viennese or Darmstadt schools.

I noticed that a number of new audience members joined us for the next two pieces including two in the seats immediately next to me – it is a shame they did not come for the Sohal as I think they would have enjoyed it.  Oundjian and the RSNO were joined by Nikolai Lugansky for the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto, one of the most technically demanding pieces in the repertoire.  Lugansky is one of the world’s greatest exponents of Rachmaninov and the rapid passagework was tossed off with fleet-fingered bravura.  The first movement seemed a little subdued at the beginning but Lugansky was quite rightly holding some of his technical arsenal in reserve, allowing the long movement to build gradually.  A few of the orchestral entries were a little flat-footed and uncoordinated but they got more in sync with the soloist as the music progressed.  I was struck by the elegance of Lugansky’s phrasing and the clarity of the textures which reminded me of Rachmaninov’s own playing.  The piece really sparked with the first movement cadenza – Lugansky played the lighter more mercurial one – which was an astonishing tour de force and it was followed by some rather lovely dialogue between soloist and woodwind.

The second movement Adagio flowed nicely at the beginning with Oundjian showing good judgement in his choice of tempo.  Lugansky gave us more of the red-blooded passion in this movement and allowed Rachmaninov’s luscious romantic melodies to soar through the hall.  The waltz section was played with astonishing digital dexterity and came across as light and playful.  The Alla breve finale was taken at a moderately fast tempo at the beginning and was well controlled but as the movement progressed the sparks really began to fly with Lugansky giving us an absolutely breath taking virtuosic display.  The scherzando section was artful and dazzling and the coda was a quite spectacular piece of playing which brought the house down.

This was a long and generous concert from the RSNO which concluded with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, one of the great crowd pleasers of the repertoire.  The elements that make for a good performance of this work were all present and correct.  The opening clarinet solo created a feeling of brooding expectation and in the ensuing Allegro con anima Oundjian handled the orchestra beautifully, giving us very clear textures and well defined rhythms.  The horn soloist at the opening of the second movement created a rich, mellow sound that was absolutely gorgeous and succeeded in maintaining it in spite of some intrusive mobile phone noises coming from the audience.  The third movement was elegant and lilting and the scurrying passage in the strings was particularly impressive.  The last movement was marred by some balance issues with the brass coming out a little too prominently but the strings did a splendid job in cranking up the emotional volatility of the music before the exultant coda.

Overall, this was a great concert and I would strongly recommend Naresh Sohal’s Cosmic Dance and hope it enters the mainstream repertoire before too long.

Robert Beattie