Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess – but let's start at the beginning. First, there were two children and their practice piece. Mother Goose Ravel called it, but it soon transcended its initial use and was arranged into a ballet suite, a wondrous and vivid dream of dense woods, of little creatures made from crystal and gems, a beast, and a prince. Ravel's music was as extraordinary as this story sounds, and it was played just like that. Under guest conductor Andrew Gourlay's graceful gestures, the CBSO brought out its colours and liveliness, especially in the middle movement that sees Princess Florine stranded on the Island of the Pagodas that saw the little gem stone creatures sing and play to the princess with great enthusiasm. The dream ended with the warm cluster of a prince's kiss among the sparkling magic dust of the Enchanted Garden.

Alexander Romanovsky © Ugo Dalla Porta
Alexander Romanovsky
© Ugo Dalla Porta

It was also a kiss (on the hand!) that stood at the end the performance of the second piece this afternoon – a superbly played Fourth Piano Concerto by Rachmaninov at the hands of Alexander Romanovsky. The CBSO's sound immediately had more punch, was more immediate, and set the mood for the piano's opening chords. Romanovsky spelled those out a bit too obviously, but soon played flowingly, coherently, effortlessly in the highly virtuoso passages, yet retaining a pithy sound. Romanovsky revelled in the jazzy opening of the middle movement as the orchestra revelled in its dreamy three-note-motif as if there was nothing musically more important to say. It was a thing of beauty, as was the third movement, played at breakneck speed, yet utterly focussed and with great accuracy.

What more could there possibly be said about Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade? This is music that paints an image with broad strokes in primary orchestral colours. It is a fascinating piece that makes the listener a first-hand witness to the Sultan's experience listening to his Sultana's intricate tales, gracefully spun by the violin. Zoe Beyer's tone was engaging, tender, with small, quick vibrato, and captured the storyteller to a tee, creating an unobtrusive, calm and quiet presence. It entered into trusted dialogue with the flute while the orchestral waves around Sinbad's ship rose and rolled covered by spray, and like the programmatic tales, it kept the listener captivated throughout.

This was a concert that generally left little to be desired, and the only fault would be found in the balance between orchestra and the soloist, and the free hand of Gourlay. While the CBSO wrapped their accompaniment around the piano, it often overpowered Romanovsky long before a full-blown forte. It also appeared that Gourlay's focus seemed to become a bit one-sided towards the end of the concert, and the orchestra was left largely to itself in several cues and rubatos. It did show briefly in one of two less well-coordinated passages, but it also showed just how well these musicians know one another, how well they communicate blindly. Despite these little slips, the big picture never fell apart and the orchestra held the tension until listeners collectively exhaled seconds after the last note had faded.