Judging by this barnstorming concert and three others I’ve attended at the Lighthouse this year, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra seems to be on a roll. The players – with several unfamiliar faces – responded with a new alertness and fresh vibrancy to the young Hungarian guest conductor Gábor Káli whose debut it was here. Based on his rapport with the orchestra, his evident enthusiasm for the music and capacity to draw out playing as distinguished as this, Káli is clearly a name to watch. Little wonder he won first prize in 2018 at the inaugural Hong Kong International Conducting Competition.

Gábor Káli rehearses with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
© Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Proceedings for this all-Russian programme began with Rachmaninov’s first published orchestral work, The Rock, a tone poem written during the summer of 1893 when he was just 20. Whether inspired by Chekhov’s story On the Road or Lermontov’s 1841 poem Utyos, Rachmaninov’s colourful score convinces for its masterly orchestration and musical evocation concerning a chance encounter between two strangers during a snowstorm on Christmas Eve. Between its brooding outer sections portraying a world-weary traveller, sparkling flute invention (eloquently dispatched by Anna Pyne) and a yearning central theme were part of an accumulating drama that culminated in baleful timpani and brass. Káli produced a well-paced and detailed performance, its regret and tragedy fully realised.

Although Tchaikovsky admired Rachmaninov’s early work and even offered to conduct it, his own Piano Concerto no 1 in B flat minor was once deemed “unplayable and worthless”. French-Albanian pianist Marie-Ange Nguci (also making her Poole debut) gave the lie to that in no uncertain terms and, like a conjuror, brought to life this old warhorse in a powerful account that grew in stature. Wearing a blue serge trouser suit Nguci impressed with a remarkable dynamic range and transparent articulation; imperious octaves and delicate passage work totally convincing in their delivery, without any look-at-me pyrotechnics. 

The initial Allegro non troppo felt a little safe at the start, notwithstanding forthright horns, but it unfolded with growing assurance as Nguci, periodically bent over the keyboard, unveiled its bravura and lyricism. Flute and oboe made mellifluous contributions in the Andantino (as did two cellists with their soulful passage), and Nguci much enjoyed herself in the scintillation of the Prestissimo. The Finale was a rollicking affair approaching a homicidal tempo that drew fresh brilliance and a rousing final furlong, the orchestra, as ever, obligingly supportive. Nguci had plenty of energy in reserve and returned to the platform with the cadenza from Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand – no mean feat after the heroics of the Tchaikovsky.

After the interval the BSO showcased its individual and collective talents in Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, a late work from 1940 often regarded as his fourth symphony. This was given an impassioned, all hands to the pump outing, vividly projected and with pugnacious attack for those marcato string chords near the beginning. Káli pushed the drama forward, not ignoring the opening Non allegro marking, yet avoiding any sense of drag, and allowing plenty of space for the bittersweet central section where Melanie Henry’s saxophone was a soulful presence. Elsewhere, piano, glockenspiel and bass clarinet variously caught the ear, but it was the brio of the outer passages that compelled attention. Skittering woodwind and ominous brass added to the macabre of the waltz movement – a ghostly ballroom – with characterful contributions, amongst others, from oboe, cor anglais and violin. The finale was no less colourful and suitably combustible for the clash between Medieval and Orthodox chants, brass and timpani thrilling here, and bringing this riveting account to a momentous close.