The Royal Northern Sinfonia have made concertos conducted by the soloist such a feature of their programming that these days it feels unusual when I see a concerto performed with separate soloist and conductor. Last night they continued this trend with Olli Mustonen directing Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 26 in D major from the piano, and conducting works by Tchaikovsky, Borodin and Shostakovich. It was a slightly odd programming mixture, but the classical lightness of Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony complemented the Mozart quite naturally, with contrast coming from the two romantic Russian pieces.

Olli Mustonen
© Outi Montosen

Sir Malcolm Sargent’s arrangement for string orchestra of Borodin’s Nocturne (originally the slow movement of his Second String Quartet) suited the RNS very nicely. It adds thick layers of quintessential early 20th-century English string sound over Borodin’s romantic tune and, with Mustonen’s flowing direction, the strings created a vintage sound, that was unashamedly nostalgic.

The other filler piece, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, wasn’t such a good choice. Although they were clearly giving it everything, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard them play so loudly, there were simply not enough strings to give the depth of sound that I’d expect from Tchaikovsky. The quieter parts were very enjoyable though, with the smaller string section giving the love theme a new intimacy. Mustonen created a particularly fluid sound right from the beginning and there was an undercurrent of raw menace as the piece built up, with some splendidly cold, biting trumpets.

I will admit that I don’t often enjoy Mozart, and I’m often frustrated when the RNS so frequently programmes him alongside things that I want to hear. Tonight I was prepared as usual to grit my teeth and swallow the Mozart medicine nicely, but I was surprised and absolutely delighted to find that I enjoyed Mustonen’s Mozart immensely. This performance was relaxed and playful, perfect Friday night music. There was a little bit of swing and a lightly jazzy touch from Mustonen in the cadenzas, and he made the opening piano solo of the second movement sound like a spontaneous improvisation. In the first movement, the piano counterpoint came through very nicely, although I thought some of the highest notes in the right hand were rather too emphatic. The RNS responded to Mustonen’s playfulness, particularly in the main theme of the last movement where there was an unusual weight on the third note, transforming a simple and potentially irritating melody into a graceful dance, and which felt like a welcome return of an old friend on each repeat. I have to say though that my joy in the Mozart was tempered by one of my pet hates, as it was followed by an unannounced encore from Mustonen that added nothing to the concert.  

Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony shares some of Mozart’s classical lightness and clear structure: something that didn’t endear him to the Soviet authorities, as they had been led to believe that he was producing a celebration of Russia’s Second World War victory that would rival Beethoven’s Ninth. Instead they got brittle, bright winds, overladen with irony and a hectic, feverish energy that walks a narrow line on the edge of insanity. Mustonen and the RNS really emphasised the crazy side of Shostakovich’s symphony, giving us the idea that absolutely anything could happen; again and again their performance called to mind some of the wilder scenes in Russian literature.

This symphony was a showcase above all for the orchestra's woodwind and brass sections. The oboes set up the energy at the beginning, and gave some beautifully clear articulation in the scampering madness of the third movement. Julia Crowell’s piccolo interjections with the trombones in the first movement were splendidly sarcastic, and her solo at end of the second movement was haunting and beautifully sustained. Jernej Albreht’s clarinet set up an enigmatic and sinister second movement, which was then picked up on in the darkness of the string sound. Richard Martin’s magnificent trumpet solo again evoked the instability of life in Russia, and the constant fear that all hell could break loose at any minute. There’s one instrument though that stops the madness, and gives us a pause for reflection, and that’s the long poignant bassoon solo. Stephen Reay created stillness amidst the chaos with a beautiful legato tone, before finally giving the playful lead into the last movement.

My search for a link between the pieces on tonight’s programme was perhaps answered in the final movement of the Shostakovich, in which the strings called to mind the ballrooms of the 19th century, albeit with an overtone of menace, which was emphasised by the growling horns before the whole orchestra piled into the finale, a joyful, defiant chorus, although Shostakovich leaves us to decide to whom the defiance is directed.