Originally, the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and its chief conductor Alexander Liebreich were scheduled to perform in Leeds Town Hall on 13 February 2016. However, due to immediate cuts in touring subsidy by the Polish Ministry of Culture, as the Leeds International Concert Season homepage states, they were not able to carry out their UK tour. Thankfully, the Flanders Symphony Orchestra under its chief conductor Jan Latham-Koenig filled in and presented the initially intended programme with only slight alterations.

Nikolai Demidenko © Kirill Bachkirov
Nikolai Demidenko
© Kirill Bachkirov
Thus the concert evening was opened by the gloomy, trembling D minor chords of the overture to Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, its slow introduction foreshadowing the dramatic finale of the plot in which Don Giovanni has to answer for his sins. In the second part of the overture, the music changed into D major and was much more light-hearted and joyful, while, in its fast tempo, the musicians occasionally did not play together quite accurately.

Next on the programme was Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in F sharp minor, the performance of which could well be regarded as the highlight of the concert. A brass fanfare initiated the first movement, followed by a grand virtuosic opening statement of the solo piano, rendered by Russian pianist Nikolai Demidenko who always had an aura of confidence about him. This early piece by Rachmaninov, actually his opus primum, comprised sections of different musical characters, resulting in a fresh, at times surprisingly modern sound. Demidenko’s playing was always precise, profound, and well-articulated. In the last cadenza, shortly before the end, his rendition of Rachmaninov reached its utmost intensity, and it was a great joy to hear him resume the first theme with fervour and full-handed chords.

After a short orchestral prelude, the solo piano introduced the listeners to the soundscape of the second movement which was reminiscent of impressionist music rather than of Tchaikovsky (as the first one might have been). This contrasting middle movement is characterized by its inwardness and reflectiveness, on a musical level by many solo passages and dialogues between the piano and individual instruments of the orchestra. Its idiosyncratic, almost otherworldly, atmosphere was vividly conveyed by Demidenko and the orchestra. The third and final movement alternated between swift, rather hasty, dance-like parts, in the middle of which oases of quietness emerged evoking the tone of the previous movement.

The interval was succeeded by Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question. In this spatial music, there were three locally separated performing groups, skilfully coordinated by Latham-Koenig from the stage: a chamber string orchestra, situated on the left hand side of the concert hall, four woodwinds placed on the stage and, finally, a trumpet player standing on the gallery. Accordingly, Ives’ music was composed of three distinctive layers: strings provided a harmonious sound tapestry that served as an undisturbed and peaceful background; meanwhile, the trumpet player intonated a short melody, which represents – as Ives indicates in the score – the “perennial question of existence”. This existential question, expressed several times by the trumpet, was answered by the woodwind group, their responses growing more and more furious and dissonant.

The colourful and versatile programme was rounded off by Brahms’ Symphony no. 3 in F major. With a huge crescendo on the first three chords, Latham-Koenig drew the audience into the grand sound world of this symphony through which he led his musicians with energetic gestures. The string section produced a clear and crisp, sometimes too pointed, sound lacking the warmth and depth that is often associated with Brahms’ symphonic music. In the second movement, however, the strings stood out by their intensive, insistent long phrasings, while the British conductor carefully shaped and highlighted the structural details of Brahms’ music.

The performance of the third movement, opening with this wonderful melody in the cellos, included memorable moments, such as the finely constructed transition leading up to the point when the horn player resumed the main melody, or the well-balanced ritardando in the closing bars. Yet, in general, one could not help but get the impression that the overall orchestral sound was not quite flexible enough, at times even somewhat unwieldy.

For the last movement, Latham-Koenig chose a rapid tempo, and the musicians were visibly enthused, playing with distinctly more vigour, resulting in long and warm applause.

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