The Royal Scottish National Orchestra played an impressive programme at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall: Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C major played by Nikolai Lugansky, and Mahler’s tremendous First Symphony, led by John Storgårds. Even the opening piece, Englund’s Suite from Pojat, was truly fascinating. The concert was not flawless at all, but its dynamic kept improving until the energy of the orchestra just blew our minds. How inspirational!

Nikolai Lugansky © Jean-Baptiste Millot
Nikolai Lugansky
© Jean-Baptiste Millot

The evening began with a short, intriguing and colourful piece, a six-movement suite that Einar Englund wrote for the film Pojat in 1962. Englund saw himself as the disciple of Sibelius, who remains the most inspirational composer from the north for many other Nordic composers. This suite had all the characteristics you may expect from film music: it was vivid, conveying various emotions, filled with humour, and triggering spontaneous stories in any listener’s imagination. In only a few measures, every little movement created a very specific atmosphere, always catchy, sometimes uncanny. The most surprising moment happened at the beginning when Englund quotes in his music the gloomy march also used by Mahler in the third movement of his First Symphony, the famous theme “Bruder Martin” or “Frère Jacques”. The only small regret regarding this choice of opening was due to the structure of the piece itself: the first moment of a concert should be very intense, and thus naturally grasp the attention of the people in the audience – who have had a long day and try to leave their tiredness and their problems outside the venue. A suite cut into six distinctive (and very different) parts does not really achieve this goal.

Nikolai Lugansky then joined the RSNO on stage to interpret Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto (1921). After the amiable introductory Andante, it took the musicians some time to immerse themselves in this complex music; the strings were not quite as nervous as the tempo demanded, the bass sounds were definitely not loud enough (partly because of the blurred acoustic!), the different levels of sound lacked coordination – and the general mood was not cocky and funny but rather crisp. The main issue was the discrepancy between the playing of the orchestra and that of Lugansky. In the first movement, the pianist was clearly leading the dynamic, triggering all the energy, creating the variations of expressivity, and using the delicious multiple specificities of his part to build his own imaginative, virtuosic, witty interpretation of Prokofiev’s exciting score – all that in an extremely casual, relaxed manner, as if it was the most easy piece he had ever played.

The second movement proved to be better, as interesting feelings emerged from the musical texture (grotesque, mysterious, fragile, spiritual, dreamy), but Lugansky still seemed completely in charge of all the interpretative choices, and the RSNO sounded as if they tried to follow his lead – which sometimes resulted in a chaotic rendering. The last movement features some of the most impressive moments of the concerto, with unexpected contrasts and mesmerizing dissonances. Even if the sound produced by the RSNO was increasingly convincing – especially during the fortes and lyrical passages – you could tell that Lugansky was really enjoying every second of the moment while it was more fastidious for the others. At some point, he literally carried the orchestra into a faster tempo; he was playing faster and faster and made everyone follow him! A performance where at least Lugansky amazed the audience.

It was only during Mahler’s First Symphony (1889) that John Storgårds really moulded the RSNO's sound to his own musical vision. The first movement was still a bit unsure, lacking a continuous dramatic tension. There was something hesitant, too smooth, no room for passion yet. However, as the Symphony unfolded, it was made clear that Storgårds’ intention was precisely to allow the music to grow richer, more overwhelming, only step by step, one sequence at a time. The second movement was already way more captivating, even if it stayed slightly too “beautiful”, not vulgar enough (glissandos were somehow restrained). The solemnity of the well-known third movement was even more satisfying: the canon was harmonious, the accents and contrasts were perfectly controlled, and the overall structure functioned extremely well. Nevertheless, the fourth movement finale was undoubtedly the best! Finally, every single musician was inhabited by Mahler’s music, by the various emotions expressed by it, and every move by Storgårds seemed possessed given the frenzy the orchestra demonstrated – a spectacular finale in every way.