It would have taken more than today's snow for me to miss a concert as good as this. Conductor Leonard Slatkin was making a guest appearance and, more to the point, so too was pianist Olga Kern and twixt them they delivered an interpretation of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto that was utterly mesmerising in its execution and overwhelming in its music-making. I will remember this concert for the second half alone: Bernstein, Tower and McTee were interesting pieces and well performed but they did not create the sensation of the second half.

Olga Kern
© Chris Lee

Right from the simple, opening melody, Kern caressed the notes with loving simplicity. Not for her the need to fly off too quickly with the countermelody semiquavers; virtuosic brilliance could wait. Here she was much more interested in exploring the dialogue and shape of her melody in conjunction with the ever-responsive National Symphony Orchestra. There was a wonderful depth to her sound, something that was particularly noticeable in the climax of the first movement. It wasn’t until the cadenza that Kern let rip. Like a sports car that responds with the slightest touch, so too did Kern, unleashing her raw power so that we were swept away on waves of passion.

The NSO imbued the start of the Intermezzo with a touching pathos, while Kern’s opening in D flat major was rich, unctuous and unashamedly romantic. The B flat minor section was wild and wonderful; what impressed here was Kern’s ability to project and sing her melody over the extraordinary complex, muscular chords. Unlike lots of second movements, where the pianist can take a breather so to speak, Rachmaninov's continues to become ever more fiendish and complex until it runs on into the even more fantastically difficult third movement! Kern’s pianism was utterly scintillating as the filigree flew by, mercurially modulating through a myriad of keys and before we knew it we were ineluctably at the third movement.

This was utterly outstanding playing from Kern who visibly jolted the audience with the sheer brilliance of her bravura, her triplets sparkling like diamonds, the chords like raging torrents. The mid-section has a giocoso character as Kern darted here and there. It was the final climax with its transcendental melody that Kern played with all her passion and might that brought a tear to my eye and this concert to its cathartic end.

Opening the concert, Joan Tower’s Made in America had a tense atmospheric opening while Slatkin kept a sharp eye on the rhythm in the highly syncopated main part. Cinematic in style, the menacing trills and crescendos were evocatively done. Cindy McTee’s Adagio for String Orchestra was adapted from her Agnus Dei written in the wake of 9/11. The cellos and violas imparted a sense of great sadness to their phrases while Slatkin imbued the whole piece with an extraordinary emotional intensity.

Bernstein’s On the Waterfront, Symphonic Suite was written for the film of the same name. The rhythmic tapping was terrifically menacing while the blast of fortissimo syncopations were as disturbing as they were brilliant. Glowering brass gave grotesque interjections across the sustained strings. Slatkin knew how to whip up the NSO to a frenzy ending off the suite in stunning style.