The central Austro-German repertoire in this excellently conceived programme was flanked by two Hungarian works from the pen of archivist, educator and composer, Zoltán Kodály. A seamless suite of five deftly orchestrated, and increasingly animated movements, Dances of Galánta (1933) draws on memories of Kodály's happy childhood in the titular market town. His earliest musical impressions and inclinations were formed there – specifically the nationalistic fervour whose flavour he captured through inclusion of folk songs and dances such as those which populate this work. Under the elegant baton of Hungary's Gilbert Varga, who had very much the air of a dancer, the RSNO performed this work with great brio. Especially prominent was lovely solo clarinet work which, I learned from Mark Fielding's excellent programme notes, evokes the single-reed tárogató, much used in Hungarian folk music.

Hamelin © Sim Canetty Clarke
Hamelin
© Sim Canetty Clarke

With forces considerably greater than the three preceding works, and coloured by the inclusion of cimbalom and tubular bells, Háry János Suite (1926-27) closed the evening with great joie de vivre. Varga, who conducted the entire evening's repertoire from memory, launched into this before his feet had settled on the podium. The work opens with an orchestral depiction of a sneeze, as Hungarian tradition has it that any story which follows a sneeze must be true. A tale spinner like Háry János would be glad of such verification, perhaps especially in the movement entitled, The Battle and Defeat of Napoleon. The closing depiction of Vienna's Imperial Court, brimming with more sense of fun and affection that this description might suggest, elicited warm and lasting gratitude from the sizeable audience.

The preceding work bristled with as much energy as the Kodály, albeit in the language of a very different age - 1779. Specifying con brio in its outer movements, Haydn's Symphony No 70 in D major was written to celebrate the opening of a new opera house at Esterhazy – its predecessor having been consumed by fire. Classical balance and decorum catered for in the central movements, the symphony's finale – a vigorous triple fugue – was able to be let off the leash. The sense of excitement that the RSNO achieved in pianissimo passages was remarkable, and the tension between control and abandon in the orchestra's playing was exhilarating.

What I gauged to be the work which most affected the audience was Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1806), featuring Marc-André Hamelin as soloist. This work, and attendant topics, also formed the substance of the fascinating pre-concert talk - a conversation between Hamelin and the RSNO's Director of Planning and Orchestra Management, Gale Mahood – a fellow Canadian. In this we learned that Hamelin, himself a composer, had written the cadenzas which were to feature in the outer movements. He urged all performers to “try their hand” at composing as it would result, at the very least, in them thinking more like a composer – greatly enhancing the interpretative skills essential to performance preparation. It was very pleasing to witness him express himself at the keyboard in a manner similar to that of the conversation – with a clarity underlining the dedication and reflection with which he approaches his art, and with a virtuosity which is first and always the servant of the music. I'm sure that Beethoven, whose last appearance as a concerto soloist was at this work's premier in 1808, would have approved greatly of this interpretation. The appreciation of the audience for Hamelin's performance was such that he eventually acceded to bringing the opening half of the concert to a close with a solo encore – Scriabin's Etude Op.2 No. 1. A performance of impossible simplicity and haunting lyricism, this was the most beautiful demonstration of the quiet gymnastics of proportion required to make the piano sing. In the week that Nick Clegg revealed that he “cries regularly to music” I wondered if many members of the audience were grateful for the lasting applause, giving them the chance to blink away a gathering tear before the lights went up.