Rachmaninov’s symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead is an intense piece of music. Inspired by a painting by Böcklin, Rachmaninov tells us of the journey to the underworld. The first moments of the piece are crucial to any performance, and Valery Gergiev lead the Rotterdam Philharmonic into a heavy and emotionally laden rendition. The 5/8 that mimics so well the sound of Charon’s boat crossing the river Styx was at the forefront throughout, making the listener really visualize this journey.

Even though the programming of this concert seemed straightforward in advance, I found it very interesting to hear this dark Rachmaninov piece combined with Prokofiev’s much more energetic Symphony no. 5. Written 40 years apart, the combination of the two pieces emphasized their qualities so tremendously – with The Isle of the Dead becoming even more mesmerizing and the symphony even more cheerful (I saw many people leave the concert humming Prokofiev’s melodies with a smile on their face).

Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin’s Piano Concerto no. 4 is above all a virtuosic piece. Pianist Olli Mustonen was mind-blowing, playing the virtuosic passages like they were nothing and above all being so rhythmically on point. The piano score is jazzy and complex, reminiscent of Stravinsky’s and Ravel’s piano concertos – though with a thoroughly idiosyncratic twist. The orchestra varied from a lush Debussian atmosphere to much more aggressive Russian sounds, all the while remaining secondary to the piano. The concerto is chock-full of ideas and one might wonder whether it is not too full of ideas, as it seemed to lack some coherence and at times it was difficult to find a focus point in the music, leaving me confused. The cadenzas played by Mustonen were the highlight of the performance, and Shchedrin’s reaction to the soloist after the performance showed that he did the piece more than justice.

Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 5 is one of the highlights of the 20th-century symphonic repertoire. The four-movement symphony is one of those pieces that has it all; it’s funny and upbeat, it has melodies that will not leave your head for days, it has energetic woodwinds and heavy strings, it is subtle, bombastic and just plain good. Gergiev and the Rotterdam Philharmonic seemed to be in good spirits during their performance, as the enjoyment of the musicians was abundantly clear. Their performance was something to be happy about in any case – with the principal clarinettist and the brass section particularly impressive. Gergiev kept the energy levels high and with even the smallest movements was able to articulate to the orchestra what was needed. A particular highlight was the second movement, Allegro marcato, which turned into a dance feast, and the lack of bopping heads or other movement in the audience has never confused me more. The final movement, Allegro giocoso, was similarly memorable, with phenomenal woodwind playing and an ending that was greeted almost immediately with raucous applause.

The Rotterdam Philharmonic Gergiev Festival not only book a solid program every single year, but they also manage to involve the entire city in cultural events. As we were leaving De Doelen another musical event was taking place on the Schouwburgplein – a piece involving not only musicians but four hot air balloons! It is the combination of these new, experimental arts and the tradition of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and Valery Gergiev that makes the festival so special and a joy to visit.