The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra sporadically presents programmes with infrequently performed works together with a famous concerto. Tonight combined modern pieces by Penderecki and Lutoslawski with Prokofiev’s crowd-pleaser Piano Concerto no. 3 in C major. The Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg made his Dutch debut and stunned audience with his performance, while former Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra percussionist Gustavo Gimeno demonstrated his growing skills as a conductor. A small, but excited, audience showed up at De Doelen in Rotterdam. Whether it was for Giltburg, Gimeno or the programme, the curiosity of the listeners was richly rewarded.

The evening opened with Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima by the Polish Krzysztof Penderecki. He composed the work for the Warsaw Autumn Festival of Contemporary Music (where Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra was also performed) in 1960 titled 8’37’’. Penderecki changed the title to its current one before it premiered at the festival in 1961. A look at the score reveals an unconventional, technical composition, but the work surprises with strong emotion, which could be the reason for the eventual title change. The threnody, a lamentation for the dead, consists of 52 string musicians divided up in several clusters playing (nearly) identitical passages layered over each other, creating one massive fluctuating sound mass. The short piece requires enormous focus and a different approach to conducting. Gimeno restrained his elegant gestures and made way for the required sober and strict approach: with his right hand he indicated with his fingers which cluster needed to step in when, while his left hand would make large gestures directing the intensity. The piece shares the nerve-wracking microtonal effects of Ligeti’s work; especially Atmosphères comes to mind. And similar to Ligeti, director Stanley Kubrick used Pendericki’s music effectively unsettling in his horror film The Shining. While the Spanish conductor began seemingly uncomfortable, he appeared more sure-footed throughout the piece, eventually managing to elicit the emotional dimension from the wailing strings that might as well have represented the suffering screams from the victims in Japan.

Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C major was an excellent collaboration between the RPhO and Boris Giltburg. Julien Hervé warmheartedly presented the opening theme of the Andante on his clarinet. He would return frequently with his soft glow. Giltburg stately commenced on the piano, quickly moving through Prokofiev’s furious arpeggios. When he played, closely bending over the keys with sober intensity, I was reminded of the posture of Glenn Gould – though Giltburg exhibited more expressive physicality later. He performed with great attention, energetic but collected, and rich with warmth. As the oboe and flute joined in later during the Allegro, the three conjured up Prokofiev’s ominous innocent energy reminiscent of Dukas’ L'apprenti sorcier. Then Giltburg continued passionately from the march to the end of the first movement.

After the flute and strings started the Tema con variazioni and the brass announced themselves comically brazen, Giltburg relaxed a bit. With tranquillity and a sense of mystery he continued in the slow passages, while Gimeno affectionately quietened his orchestra with his index finger into an accommodating pianissimo. A relaxed sense of wonder came over me and allowed for a dreamy escape. After the bassoon’s farcical wit introduced the last movement, the pianist switched gears and added a Russian dimension to the Allegro, ma non troppo. Instead of its trademark Russian fury, the conductor evoked a tempered, elegant accompaniment from the RPhO, enriching Giltburg’s thunderous performance in the final passages of the concerto. After a standing ovation, Giltburg returned with an exquisite performance of “La leggierezza” from Trois études de concert. Liszt’s light romantic mood contrasted beautifully with Prokofiev’s exhausting intensity, leaving the stunned audience all abuzz about Giltburg during the break (and after the concert).

Always in Bartók’s shadow, Witold Lutowslawki’s Concerto for Orchestra now presented the RPhO’s sectional leaders with an opportunity to shine. The opening movement Intrada alone is captivating in itself. The composer adapted most of the themes from various folk songs into this unconventional, but exciting piece. While timpani consistently beat underneath, the celli, violas, second and first violins, play the theme one after another, layered over each, increasing the sense of impending doom. Shostakovich’s presence could be felt. Later the woodwinds would juxtapose the same theme amongst each other with a calming, hypnotic effect. In the “Capriccio notturno ed Arioso”, the RPhO created whimsical night-time madness with the xylophone and harp adding some exotic moments, while the wood section clearly had fun playing off each other. In the final movement “Passacaglia, Toccata, e Corale” the double basses and harp opened with a brooding, primordial mood. Later, the duel between the snare drums and the trombones propelled the intensity. The flautist was impressive, performing her tempestuous passages so fiercely, the oboist had to protect his ear. Gimeno successfully lead the orchestra towards the tremendous finale. With his appropriately expressive gestures, lacking of any theatricality, and his elegant sway in the guidance of tempi, traces of Gimeno’s teachers Mariss Jansons and the late Claudio Abbado became evident. After this excellent night with the RPhO, Gustavo Gimeno continues to be one to watch.