Playing the sort of programme which could fill a concert hall at 9am on a Sunday makes high artistic demands on performers to offer novel perspectives on familiar repertoire. Soloist and orchestra must be at the top of their game, and the conductor, above all, needs to mastermind an approach which offers more than a bland, eyes-shut bash-through. The latter quality was evident in abundance tonight, occasionally at the expense of accuracy but always to the benefit of the meaning of the music.

Robert Treviño © Musacchio & Ianniello
Robert Treviño
© Musacchio & Ianniello

The American conductor Robert Treviño, a name firmly in the ascendency, found more darkness in tonight’s Rachmaninov and Mahler than is ever usually heard. The traditional “darkness to light” narratives of Rachmaninov’s C minor piano concerto and Mahler’s C sharp minor symphony were cast aside, displaced by a vision altogether more uncomfortably bleak and tragic, painted in such stark colours that one wondered if the ebullient finales of each work really were adequately redemptive to sweep tragedy aside. 

The angst-ridden tension of the Rachmaninov was stressed to a high degree by Treviño and young Russian pianist Arseny Tarasevich-Nikolaev, whose highly demonstrative, physical approach was evident right from the famous tolling chords which open the concerto. The monumental tempo pull-back for the four crotchets of bar 8 may have raised eyebrows, but the lusciously velvety sound of the string section soon swept this aside. Built upwards from hyper-succulent, almost Bartók-esque pizzicati of the basses, the sound glowed richly from right across the stage, violins together and violas to the conductor’s right. Clarity of ensemble was occasionally blurred, and Tarasevich-Nikolaev was only rarely seen to glance into the orchestra, though remarkable virtuosity was in no short supply.

There was more to admire as the concerto progressed, from magical solos for clarinet and horn in the slow movement to crisp tension in the third. Treviño subtly raised the temperature through the finale, the tempo hastening in the quick passages and the rubato broadening in the “big tune” at each appearance. After the coda raced to the finish line at a staggering presto, and the curiously bashful-looking Tarasevich-Nikolaev had received a rapturous ovation, he gave a wonderfully serene encore of Medtner’s Canzona serenata no. 6.

All eyes, then, to the trumpet section for Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. It was touching to see the section rise to greet their leader with warm handshakes as he came on stage. His solo, dark and bold but with abundant subtleties applied to every note and phrase, set the tone for the whole symphony. Treviño’s account of it was memorably original, emphasising dark shadows at generally slow tempi. 

The funereal opening movement was more a slow procession than a march, but the moments of despairing anguish were hair-raisingly agitated amid desolate woodwind cries. Without pausing for breath, the second movement erupted from the first with breathtaking fury. The music slowed slightly to appreciate a beautifully moving cello paragraph, just hinting at sad introspection before the great major-key cloud-parting. Treviño moulded the drama into perfect proportion, and his players captured all the beauty, tragedy and sardonic humour of the music. The Scherzo saw some fine horn playing, the alpine calls tinged with sadness.

The Adagietto, though not to all tastes in its unfashionably slow tempo, was memorable for the strings’ ability to play with velvety warmth and the most fragile, translucent delicacy. There was similarly vivid character in the woodwind playing as the music stepped into the dewy dawn of the finale. From here the symphony fizzed, fresh and ever more bustling, to the finish line. Of the many capricious tempo changes, only in the deep breath before the last chorale did the music threaten to derail briefly, before a jubilant ending.