The RSNO was one of six co-commissioning orchestras behind Kaija Saariaho's 2012 Circle Map and this evening was the UK première. Setting six quatrains by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi, the work's electronic content is most noticeable for its inclusion and “treatment” of a voice “reading” the verses. This was especially noticeable in the second movement “Walls Closing”, when I sensed neighbours looking for the guilty party speaking in hushed Persian. This gives an idea of how the text is embodied into, rather than atop, the music. By the second voice-based movement “Dialogue”, listeners without programmes seemed to be au courant.

Susanna Mälkki © Simon Fowler
Susanna Mälkki
© Simon Fowler

These are highly atmospheric movements, often clinched by sizzling, otherworldly percussion, here delicately delivered. There were several lovely passages for vibraphone, particularly in no. 3 “Circles”. “Days Are Sieves” featured some lovely note bending on alto flute by Katherine Bryan and the one of the work's few conspicuously Persian-sounding moments on piccolo by Janet Richardson. A later such moment featured David Hubbard's bassoon. Other notable solo moments included Toby Street's trumpet lines which, in “Walls Closing”, reminded me of the expressive angularity of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. Significant solo violin moments were provided by leader Maya Iwabuchi, who also led the strings in some wonderful sectional moments, such as the ostinato in “Days are Sieves” and some thrilling Lutosławskian clusters in the closing “Day and Night, Music”. Susanna Mälkki, conducting – as throughout the evening – without a baton, directed this engaging work with an unhurried eye and ear for attention which I imagine Rumi would have admired.

With similar lack of fuss and the 1785 “Ex-Wilhelmj” Guadagnini in hand, Jack Liebeck took to the stage for Prokofiev's Violin Concerto no. 1 in D major. Although begun in 1915, the première didn't take place until 1923, thanks to the forces of history and the composer's nomadic years. Prokofiev's reversal of traditional fast-slow-fast concerto form results in a delicate opening which Liebeck and the RSNO conveyed with great tenderness. Although marked Andante sostenuto, there is great variety of articulation and, here, footwork to match. The opening gentleness is soon replaced by the ferocity and irony often expected of Prokofiev. Following a searchingly played cadenza of two-part writing, a passage of solo violin harmonics accompanied by strings, wind and harp conjured a feeling of freefall and, although the piece lands unmistakably in a key, a lovely wholetone-like flute melody provides the perfect parachute.

Liebeck truly shone in the central Scherzo vivacissimo. Fiercely virtuosic, there are also great demands of articulation and ensemble for the orchestra who really seemed to be enjoying themselves, especially the low brass and John Whitener on tuba in particular. The movement's jokey ending was pulled off with great flair. Beginning wistfully, with beautifully played woodwind lines softening the orchestral tick-tock backing, the finale's romanticism became increasingly impassioned, culminating in two short, animating climaxes. An oxygenating passage of ricochet bowing for the soloist, played with great vigour, separates these peaks. The movement's most romantic and impassioned music followed, the playing by all concerned truly alight. The work dissolved with a return of the flute's altered scale. It was a captivating performance.

In our world of job sizing and “added value”, it's tempting to weigh the contribution of outstanding orchestration to works originally conceived for solo piano. How much of the colour is in the music and how much in the orchestration? Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition suggests a natural master of the physics of instrumental combination: nothing seems cancelled out by the addition of a new instrument. However varied, the sound is always beautifully clear, especially in the hands of musicians such as those present here. A case in point is the second “Promenade”, as Mussorgsky ambles from one picture to the next; already heard on Toby Street's trumpet, the melody migrated to Kenneth Henderson's horn, the phrases punctuated by beautifully clear writing and playing, the bassoon shining particularly. In the manner of a relay race, the bassoon opens “The Old Castle”, before yielding to Josef Pacewicz's tenderly played alto sax theme.

Katy MacKintosh's spritely oboe and Mussorgsky's impish harmonies suggested playful antics in “Tuileries” and, following a minor key rendition of the “Promenade”, even more playful music and orchestration portrayed the “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks”. Both here, and in “The Marketplace at Limoges”, I was reminded of youthful Stravinsky. Darker and more solemn moments were saved til last: “Catacombs”, “Baba-Yaga” and the (never built) “Great Gate of Kiev” conveyed excellently the sepulchral, the sinister and the proudly ceremonial. Mälkki and the RSNO had been the best company on this virtual visual adventure, the sum truly greater than the parts.