United Kingdom Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich: Jean-Efflamt Bavouzet (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Neeme Järvi (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 20.2.2015 (SRT)
Rimsky-Korsakov: Capriccio Espagnol
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5
Neeme Järvi was the RSNO’s principal conductor in the 1980s (he’s now their Conductor Laureate) and they clearly retain a special affection for one another. It’s demonstrated, for example. in the way they respond to one another when the music stops. Tonight, as with the last time he was here (Shostakovich 7 back in 2011), he engaged in a little pantomime at the ovations, refusing to take the bow himself and encouraging the audience to give more applause to the players. It’s charming coming from someone of his distinction, and speaks of both the respect and genuine musical comradeship between conductor and orchestra.
But that closeness was also demonstrated by the music making. The solo cadenzas that are so important to Capriccio Espagnol grew out of a texture of comfort and confidence. The players knew they were going to be well supported, and that led to spontaneity and a willingness to take risks, something that was also evident in the brightness and sparkle to the big orchestral tuttis. Järvi’s speeds, too, were on the fast side, but that led to more excitement and glimmer that served the music very well.
There was sparkle aplenty in Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, too, but this time generated most obviously by some fairly stunning pianism from Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. This often understated, always musical, pianist here turned into a dynamo, fizzing up and down the keyboard with the energy of a nuclear reaction. It was a cracking performance which, for energy and excitement, rivalled even Danil Trifonov’s EIF opener back in 2013, and that’s saying something.
Orchestrally, the thing that impressed me most in the Prokofiev was the gleam on the violins, which was especially affecting in the slow second theme of the finale. It was the strings that carried the soul of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, too, most obviously in the heartbreakingly tender Largo, but also in the soulful themes of the opening movement. The rest of the orchestra responded with plenty of colour elsewhere: the brass kicked off a storm at the start of the finale, but generated something ominous and sinister during the central section of the first movement, with an orchestral ostinato that was palpably threatening. Järvi, so assured in Shostakovich, directed a performance of rock solid security, shaping each movement with total confidence in the music’s architectural reach. He could be expansive in the first and third movements but then generate a Scherzo of such manic irreverence that it sounded like a waltz with a wonky table leg. His treatment of the controversial D major coda was bright, shiny and fairly slow but also rather devoid of conviction. It left me feeling slightly cold, but then, perhaps that was the point.