The Flanders Symphony Orchestra replaced the Polish National Radio Orchestra in Tuesday's concert at Cadogan Hall in music by Mozart and Beethoven, with Russian pianist Nikolai Demidenko joining them for Chopin's Piano Concerto no. 1 in E minor. The cancellation by the Polish orchestra was due to funding issues, sadly all too common amongst orchestras and ensembles today.

Jan Latham-Koenig © Paul Persky
Jan Latham-Koenig
© Paul Persky
Chopin's First Piano Concerto was the middle work in the concert, which opened with Mozart's Overture to Don Giovanni. Composed in 1787 for the Prague Theatre, the opera was a great success when it premiered in that city in October that year. Opening in dark D minor, with references to the final scene in which the Commendatore's statue comes portentously to life and summons Don Giovanni to account for his sins, the music offers much scope for drama and contrast in Mozart's subtle shadings and chiaroscuro. Sadly, the orchestra under Jan Latham-Koenig seemed tentative and the ensemble playing was not always accurate. As the orchestra settled into the brighter major section, there was a greater sense of contrasting textures and musical colour, but not enough was made of the voicing and at times the woodwind section struggled to be heard over the strings. In summary, it felt like a warm up piece.

Chopin's two piano concertos are numbered in the 'wrong order', like Beethoven's first two. The F minor concerto was in fact written and performed first, but then the orchestral score was mislaid during a journey Chopin made in the autumn of 1830 and while new orchestral parts were written, the E minor concerto was published in 1833. That both concertos were composed when Chopin was only 20 is remarkable: these sophisticated, thoughtfully-scored works were composed before the majority of Chopin's piano solos, yet already display the essence and brilliance of his writing for the piano with long-spun melodic lines, sparkling cadenzas and fioritura passages, great emotion, and poignant references to the music of his homeland. Both concertos were composed as showcases for a travelling virtuoso, and display few characteristics of a Mozart-era concerto with little of the chamber music intimacy between soloist and orchestra, or the heroic discourse of Beethoven's piano concertos. Here, the piano provides a monologue, turning the orchestra's material into something distinctive, poetic and inventive, while the orchestra serves in the background, the "accompanist", if you will.

My concert companion wondered whether the Polish orchestra might have lent a greater understanding to the Chopin Concerto or whether it was just Chopin's orchestral writing which contributed to the Flanders Symphony Orchestra's difficulties in this work. Demidenko valiantly attempted to pull the whole ensemble together, and his performance was robust and expansive, rich in wit, musical understanding and clarity, particularly in the perilous final section of the first movement. His treatment of the cadenzas was spontaneous and colourful, bright yet warm-toned. The orchestra, however, often seemed daunted by this music, which manifested itself in messy ensemble playing, overly loud strings and some issues with intonation in the woodwind. The slow movement was tender and elegant, but while Demidenko strove to create the intimate serenity of a nocturne, the orchestra's contribution was too loud, again the strings, whose introductory measures, before the piano announces itself, were less than subtle. In the final movement, Demidenko treated us to a lively "Krakowiak" dance, whose folksy rhythms and nuances were reflected in his first encore, a bittersweet Mazurka which demonstrated his acute sense of pacing, phrasing and tempo rubato. The second encore was the 'Minute' Waltz, delivered with humour and charm.

The urban legend surrounding the creation of Beethoven's Third Symphony, the “Eroica”, is well known. Whatever the actual circumstances of this symphony's composition, there is no doubting its heroic scale and emotional range. Fortunately, the orchestra fared much better: this is clearly a work they know well and like. The first movement was weighty, dramatic and well-articulated, with colourful interjections from the woodwind. The second movement, the Marche Funebre, was suitably imposing yet imbued with an underlying sense of tragedy. A joyful yet restless Scherzo followed with fine contributions from the woodwind and horn section, and in the finale the orchestra displayed a fine sense of the epic scale of this movement with a richly-textured sound and continuous energy.