If Mexican bandits are a frequent trope of the cinematic world, then it was a refreshing change to have two accomplished Mexican musicians take centre stage in tonight’s performance. Conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto and pianist Jorge Federico Osorio share a nationality but their physical differences are quite marked: the former’s tall, charismatic, showman-like presence towered over the slightly diffident, diminutive stature of the latter. Not that these differences impacted on their shared musical vision for the works of the first half.

Jorge Federico Osorio
© Todd Rosenberg

The programming of Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain and Maurice Ravel’s Piano concerto for the Left Hand made for a fascinating pairing of two impressionist composers of the early 20th century. Nielsen's Symphony no. 5 was arguably a more daring, meaty conclusion to a slightly more outré programme from previous Friday concerts and this was reflected in quite a few empty seats tonight.

Nights in the Gardens of Spain is, in the composer’s own words, a “set of symphonic impressions” for piano and orchestra. De Falla had left his native Spain for the cultural hotspot of Paris and, while he absorbed the impressionistic spirit of Debussy and Ravel of the time, he never lost that particular Spanish idiom that informs his works. The work is divided into three contrasting parts; the first, In the Generalife Gardens in Alhambra; the second a lively dance and the third, In the Gardens of the Sierra de Córdoba. Prieto elicited a diaphanous palette of colours from the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra to suggest this Spanish-Moorish world while Osorio’s rapid passagework and crisp articulation added to this effect. As Osorio’s arpeggios shimmered up and down the piano we were magnetically drawn into this highly evocative world full of lush sounds and sensuous possibilities. There was bite in the attack of the second movement Danza lejana while Prieto controlled the tension through some finely grade dynamics.

Piano pieces for the left hand alone are a rarity. Scribian and Godowsky spring to mind. Ravel’s was commissioned by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein (brother of the philosopher) who lost his right arm in World War I. Through-composed in one movement, it’s filled with dark mutterings and all the classic Ravelian jazzy sounds that make up his earlier G major concerto. And it’s fiendishly difficult too because, despite its title, it does produce the effect of being for two hands.

Osorio proved his virtuosic metal right from the word go: leaping about the keyboard with all the nimbleness of a chamois goat, his left hand produced the extraordinary sensation of both melody and accompaniment at the same time. While the visual spectacle was utterly captivating, Osorio impressed very much in his finely graded melodic lines and his rhythmic drive. The NSO responded with great freshness to such musical exuberance. The wonderful cascading notes of the cadenza built up to a passionate and satisfying conclusion. An encore of Debussy’s La Cathédrale engloutie sated the audiences’ vigorous applause.

Considered his symphonic masterpiece, Nielsen’s Fifth is the perhaps the most enigmatic of his symphonies. Abandoning the standard four movement design, Nielsen elected for a two part structure, the first one a slow, if at times menacing, movement with the snare-drum’s constant interruptions, while the second is impetuous and energetic.

Prieto’s straightforward approach to this symphony worked well, delivering a taut, energetic account of this drama between good and evil. The snare-drummer is to be highly commended for what was a successful battering of his insistent, disruptive motif, even as the NSO tried to vanquish this hammering in a huge, powerful wave of sound. The off-stage drumming faded away atmospherically into nothing.

The swirling shifts in rhythm, momentum and drama of the second movement were impressively handled by Prieto as he energised the orchestra from start to finish. Equally impressively was the way in which each section responded: the thunderous and galumphing of the percussion, the full-bodied clarion call of the brass; the disturbing antiphonal exchange between violins and woodwind. And if the occasional trivial slip occurred, it did nothing to mar the power and excitement of such a performance.

Prieto, ever the showman, chatted to the audience and ended with a gutsy, vibrant account of fellow Mexican José Pablo Moncayo’s Huapango.