There are musical families and then there are musical dynasties. The most celebrated of these in Latvia must be the Osokins, père and pedagogue Sergejs and his two sons Andrejs and Georgijs, both veterans of innumerable piano competitions. The three often appear together, individually and as a dynamic trio of pianists, and this concert as part of the Jūrmala Festival was a celebration of these artists.

Georgijs Osokins, Sergejs Osokins and Andrejs Osokins
© Pauls Zvirbulis

Whether or not the choice of movements from piano concertos was the ideal way to display their talents is a debatable point. Georgijs, the youngest of the three Latvians, started the evening rolling with the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1. Tchaikovsky thinned down does not yield a homeopathic potency. Quite the reverse. The 20-odd members of the Sinfonietta Riga, many of whose faces seemed familiar from the previous concert evenings, with just four first violins and entirely shorn of trumpets and trombones, failed to have much of an impact. Judging from the soloist’s face it all seemed very effortful, and it sounded so too. Even in the cadenza the rhythmic unsteadiness was disconcerting.

Sergejs made more of an impression in the Andante and Allegro vivace movements from Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 21, moving elegantly through the many modulations of the slow movement and with crisp playing in the rondo finale. To conclude the first half Andrejs played Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 1 - complete! He looked much happier than his brother and revelled in the technical demands, though clarity was sometimes in short supply during the great whirlwinds of sound he drew from his instrument. Even with the amplification provided, the wonderful tremolos the composer wrote for the first violins hardly registered. On the other hand, the triangle was as clear as a bell, vying with the single woodwind for attention.

Georgijs Osokins and Sinfonietta Riga
© Pauls Zvirbulis

The second half was devoted largely to solo works by 19th-century Romantic composers. Here, however, the vagaries of the open-air setting conspired to distract attention from the keyboard performances. Intermittent aircraft and mechanical noise was less of a problem than the constant and clearly audible thump of heavy rock in the background, presumably from the vicinity of the nearby beach.

Georgijs moved swiftly from Chopin’s Souvenir de Paganini to the most substantial solo work of the evening, Liszt’s Après une lecture de Dante – Fantasie quasi Sonata, taken from the second volume of his Years of Pilgrimage. Holding together such an improvisatory work, with its sudden leaps from the ruminative to the demonstrative, the rapid transitions from hushed whispers to leonine roars, is no mean feat. Georgijs appeared and sounded much happier here than in the first half: the rich chromaticism of the piece and the beatific chorale in F sharp major that beckons heavenwards made their mark in his hands.

Liszt was the supreme piano virtuoso of his time and he made a huge number of transcriptions and arrangements. Andrejs played both Schumann’s Widmung and Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan in their later manifestations. The two pieces thrive on intimacy – well-nigh impossible in these surroundings – and the Liebestod in particular which was presented in extrovert fashion missed a lot of the inwardness and heartache. Andrejs concluded his solo pieces with a truncated version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, fine as a sampler, and gilded with much impishness, but ultimately unsatisfying.

Sergejs Osokins
© Pauls Zvirbulis

Then came the highlight of the evening for me. After its orchestral premiere in 1875, Saint-Saëns made two arrangements of his Danse macabre, one for two pianos and another for violin and piano. There are countless versions of the piece, even for accordion, and Liszt too – noting no doubt the devilish interval of a tritone which he had himself used in his Dante sonata – was drawn to Saint-Saëns’ tone poem, expanding the material and adding his own compositional touches. In this piano duet version performed by Sergejs and Andrejs there was as much colour and demonic spirit as in the orchestral version. Any evil spirits still lurking outside in the parkland will have been consigned to oblivion by these pianistic firecrackers.

If you happen to be called Johann Strauss II and come up with arguably the world’s most famous waltz, you must expect others to capitalise on your original idea. Purists like me will not have been drawn to this version of The Blue Danube in which the three Osokins were reunited with the Sinfonietta Riga. It started with cascading roulades on all three pianos (there are no rapids in the River Danube around Vienna). Amid the percussiveness of the solo instruments and the wisps of sound coming from the Sinfonietta there was some semblance of that recognisable melody. But guys – where was the elegance of the ballroom, the lilt and rubato on which this piece depends?

Alexander Hall's press trip to Latvia was funded by Dzintari Concert Hall