The conflict and contrast at the heart of symphonic writing normally concerns rival keys and their associated themes. Shostakovich's Symphony no. 1 in F minor offers an additional clash of meter. Young Shostakovich, a fan of Stravinsky's Pétrouchka pitted a sardonic marionette march theme for clarinet against a puppet-ballerina waltz for flute. Align this with his cinematic take on music and you have a fine showcase opener for soloists, sections, and 'tutti' of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO) appearing in Usher Hall with Chief Conductor Mariss Jansons.

Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra © Anne Dokter
Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
© Anne Dokter

Cinematic mirth continued into the Allegro with some wonderful writing for, and playing by, solo bassoon accompanied by pizzicato cellos. Energy was provided by the piano which, following several scurrying moments, provided drama and suspense through some ominous and individually conducted blows. Shostakovich's near-omnipresent side drum made its presence felt. The mood became sombre in the Lento - Largo. Solo oboe then cello reached out from the dark territory surrounding them. This movement had foreboding and gravitas quite startling in a young composer. In solo moments, Jansons merely extended an encouraging, gently moving, baton-free hand toward individuals. After all, had metric exactitude been required, the moment would probably not have been scored for a soloist.

Scurrying returned with a vengeance in the closing Allegro molto, particularly for piano and clarinets. In the midst of this there was a stunning tutti descent. In a sudden slowing down RCO Leader, Vesko Eschkenazy featured in some lovely playing, additional twinkle being supplied by glockenspiel. Proceedings suddenly came to a halt for an unmissable moment of solo timpani with some arresting pitch-bending pedalled in. Then, following Gregor Horsch's lovely solo cello moment, the sense of an ending was in the air, with beautifully angular solo trumpet and thrilling orchestral dissonance along the way. Jansons left the ground momentarily on the final chord.

An extremely dapper Jean-Yves Thibaudet took to the stage for Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major. Given the work's jazz element, Thibaudet is an apt choice as his repertoire includes jazz greats like Bill Evans and Duke Ellington. However, jazz is not the sole idiom. Two other Ravel trademarks making their presence felt: Spanish music and the clear textures of bygone musical eras. One such era felt closer than the rest: the joyously vulgar cancan-style chords which abruptly end the movement. As Roger Nichols pointed out in his informative and often very humorous programme note, Ravel composed this concerto in tandem with his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand and there were several moments where the left was the upper or only hand. Thibaudet was required to explore the full range of the keyboard, sometimes hurriedly by strikingly sizeable glissandi.

The time-stopping Adagio assai was transcendent. Ravel confessed that its endlessly and effortlessly soaring melody was wrestled with "bar by bar" and had "nearly killed" him. The ethereal feeling seems to have been achieved by the right hand following a pulse which is half the speed of the left's. Thibaudet's touch here was magical and his use of rubato was no less affecting for its subtlety. There was some lovely wind playing, especially flute early in the movement and, later, cor anglais to whom the melody passed while Thibaudet executed the delicate Bach-style obbligato above. Jansons' custody of the movement as a whole expressed itself mostly in gentle and successful pleas to soloist and orchestra alike for dynamic restraint. This was especially true in the magical moment where the music, which seems destined to resettle in the home key of E major, sidesteps into unexpected C sharp major.

Restraint was the last thing on everyone's mind in the closing Presto - a romp thoroughly enjoyed by all. Some of the pianistic virtuosity sounded like Art Tatum playing for silent movies. Thibaudet, was cheered and applauded volubly.

The soloist departed, Ravel's outstanding orchestration was even more to the fore in his 1913 Daphnis et Chloé, Suite no. 2. This second suite features numbers from the third tableau of his 1912 ballet after 4th century Greek writer Longus' pastorale tale of the same name. As one might expect, chirping piccolo and flute were to the fore in “Lever de jour” (Daybreak). The 'big tune' was delivered by the Concertgebouw's rich, warm strings - nicely contrasted later with the very fine woodwind section in “Pantomime”. The closing “Danse générale” featured some excellent solo clarinet. Then, thickening textures revealed Ravel's love for Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade. Diaghilev, despairing of the ballet's difficult production, approached Ravel's publisher with a view to cancelling. Ravel's brilliant orchestration was rightly cited as reason to keep faith. An average orchestra can be brought to life by it; in this orchestra the result was magic.