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Dutilleux, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky: Leif Ove Andsnes (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Stéphane Denève (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 21.10.2009 (SRT)

Dutilleux: Symphony No. 1

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 4

Stravinsky: Firebird Suite (1919)

This was an evening of understated grandeur, at one point featuring its very embodiment, Leif Ove Andsnes. Andsnes has conquered the world in the last decade and is now one of the most sought-after pianists on the international concert circuit. Unlike some, however, he is never distracted by showy display or OTT acting: it is the power of the music that motivates him and that makes his performances all the more exciting for his audiences. Watching him play is eye-opening. He never flounces his hands off the keyboard and he turns the score casually, almost nonchalantly, as he follows the music; but the sounds he conjures from the keyboard are remarkable. With him Rachmaninov’s Fourth concerto is no mere crowd pleaser but a thoughtful musical journey from the lyrical sweep of the first movement to the ebullience of the finale. Of all Rachmaninov’s concertos this is the one I’ve always struggled with the most, but listening to it this evening every facet fell into place as a coherent musical argument going to a pre-ordained destination. Of course Denève and his increasingly excellent orchestra played their part too, especially the first violins whose passage alone with the piano at the end of the first movement was beautiful but dramatic at the same time. The gorgeous warmth summoned up by the whole string section in the slow movement will live in my memory for a long time.

Grandeur was supplied in spades with the finale of the Firebird Suite, but en route we were treated to a beautifully subtle rendering of the Firebird’s dance and a darkly powerful Infernal Dance, though the dance of the Princesses was remarkably alluring. However I especially enjoyed getting to hear Dutilleux’s first symphony. It is a work clearly dear to Denève’s heart, as he explained in his brief talk to the audience, one of the regular pleasures of spending an evening with him. He has passed on his enthusiasm to the orchestra who really got inside the piece. Its overall architecture was instantly convincing, from the shady passacaglia that opens the symphony (which kept putting me in mind of Britten’s Passacaglia in Act 2 of Peter Grimes) through to the great arc of the finale as it disappears into a beautifully warm string passage. The perpetual motion of the scherzo flickered across each section, while the lyricism of the slow movement provided a winning contrast. For me the section of the finale where the winds, harp and celesta played together was a real tour-de-force, while the beautifully positive string chords that end the work in a confident major key provided a calm and satisfying conclusion. We are lucky to have heard this work in Scotland, and luckier still to have an orchestra and conductor who can do it so convincingly.

Simon Thompson 

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