Attending a concert at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, the oldest opera house in Europe, is always an amazing experience. Built in 1737, San Carlo offers an alluring atmosphere for the magnificence of its architecture and for the perfection of its acoustics.

Juraj Valčuha and Roberto Cominati
Juraj Valčuha and Roberto Cominati

Last Sunday’s concert was also further confirmation, if any were needed, of the excellence of two relatively young artists who are enjoying acclaimed international careers. The 37-year-old Slovak Juraj Valčuha, now the chief conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI in Turin, has worked in the last seasons with the Berlin Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, the Filarmonica della Scala in Milan, the New York Philharmonic, and many other prestigious ensembles.

Roberto Cominati, at the piano for Ravel’s concerto, was playing at home, so to speak, as he was born in Naples in 1969. He started his international career in 1993 and has won many prestigious prizes since, winning the favour of both critics and the leading concert institutions worldwide. The three-piece programme included Gershwin’s An American in Paris, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in Ravel’s orchestral transcription.

The concert got off to a good start with Gershwin’s symphonic poem, whose jazz rhythm and melodies describe the impressions of an American tourist as he strolls about the French capital in a late spring day. The orchestra interpreted Gershwin’s score with engagement and humour, and Valcuha obtained a good response from the ensemble with seemingly minimal effort. The conductor and the orchestra offered a straightforward performance of the piece, and the audience was offered, apart from a couple of rough transitions, some absolutely lovely moments: of the three parts which are discernible in the composition, most remarkable was the middle section with the slow theme of the famous “homesickness blues” launched by some gorgeous trumpet solo.

Ravel’s piano concerto, the second piece on the programme, was genuinely emotional and filled with tension. Roberto Cominati displayed his usual great virtuosity and originality: he has a detached attitude to the piano, treating the instrument as a pure intellectual abstraction; some listeners more keen on passionate involvement may not like this approach, but it is undeniable that he gave an analytical and in-depth interpretation of Ravel.

His refined technical prowess caught every nuance of the score, in a sequence of finely rendered passages, making each note fundamental, thanks to the elegance of touch, wise use of the pedal, great interpretative wisdom and the perfect balance between control and passion.

The dialogue between the piano and the orchestra was an excellent demonstration of the collaborative relationship among players in a concerto: Valcuha and the orchestra proved themselves attentive accompanists as they followed Cominati, especially in the beautiful second movement; at other times, as dictated by the score, the orchestra assumed control, and were loyally supported by the piano soloist.

The performance was a confirmation for those who already appreciated the talent of this Neapolitan pianist, and it provided further evidence of his consonance with the French composer. This part of the programme, more than the other two, caught the whole audience’s interest and excitement: to generous applause and shouts of “Bis!” (the Italian equivalent of “Encore!”), Cominati complied, playing Piazzolla’s Milonga del Angel and Falla’s Fire dance.

The programme’s second purely orchestral work, Mussorsgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition as orchestrated by Ravel, came after the piano concerto and again offered Jurai Valcuha the opportunity to demonstrate his command of large-scale symphonic structure. As in the Gershwin, he showed energy and complicity with the orchestra: he made his presence constantly felt, though apparently leaving room for the orchestra’s own personality as well.

Both the conductor and the orchestra gave an ironic and yet dramatic reading of Mussorgsky’s score. They emphasized the composer’s percussive textures with energy and even gravity, though never losing touch with the “scherzando” quality that some of the suite’s pieces possess, like the children playing at the Tuileries, the marketplace at Limoges, or the ballet of the unhatched chicks.

The choice of the concert programme exemplified the similarities in style between the three composers: scintillating textures, clever melodic inventiveness and, above all, power and energy. But, beyond scales and tonalities, what is really stimulating is their multifarious rhythmical structure and the way they exploit the whole spectrum of possible sonorities – all well rendered by the San Carlo orchestra, which followed the conductor and accompanied Cominati thoroughly and sensibly.