Last night’s concert with the RPO under the baton of Artistic Director Charles Dutoit began with Mussorgsky’s orchestral showpiece, Night on a Bare Mountain. The piece describes the dreadful antics of three witches as they await the Devil’s appearance on a spooky mountain top. Like many of his works, the piece was neatened up by Rimsky-Korsakov after the alcoholic Mussorgsky’s death and is today a very popular concert choice. Most remarkable about this short and dramatic work was the stillness of the orchestra. This was not the stillness that comes from intense concentration, rather the lethargy of an orchestra playing an all too familiar work in an all too familiar way. Dutoit asked nothing new of the piece or the orchestra: the effect was less a terrifying mountain-top tryst with the Devil himself and more hill-side picnic with one of his minions.

Due to a family bereavement André Watts did not perform the Grieg Piano Concerto last night. The concerto was instead performed by Freddy Kempf, who looked as nervous as one might expect when coming onto stage. He needn’t have worried: from the beautifully shaped opening statement, an increasing wave of sound so unlike the usual enormous opening, he provided a delicate and individual reading of this well-known piece. Kempf responded to Greig’s thickly written score by playing with a stunning clarity of tone and picking out the important notes in the huge chords, demonstrating his clear understanding of the work. Most impressive was his dialogue with the orchestra, communicating with soloists and full sections to shape phrases just the way he wanted and on occasion turning round in order to agree with leader Duncan Riddell upon where strings and piano should meet. The performance did lack levity and playfulness until the very last section of the final movement; however this could fairly be put down to the fact that a last-minute Grieg is no laughing matter. Kempf returns to the RPO next season to direct all the Beethoven concertos from the piano; tonight’s demonstration of his ability as a director suggests that this is not to be missed.

If Dutoit’s sparse conducting style was not ideal for the first half of the programme, in the second he came into his own. The Firebird contains the usual Stravinsky signature of complex rhythm, yet is melodic to an enormous, Romantic extent. Dutoit’s way of showing larger phrases rather than individual beats had created small problems in the ensemble in the first half, however in the second this gave the piece the breadth it needed for those wonderful melodies to sing. Despite expansive tempi which allowed the piece to lose intensity towards the middle Dutoit’s gestures scooped a wonderfully gooey Firebird from the orchestra. The loss of intensity was mainly due to the fact that we heard the full ballet version rather than the shorter concert suite; it was a great chance to hear the full work, but naturally there are moments of less musical activity where the audience is meant to be drawn to the ballet dancers onstage. Stunning woodwind solos and a passionate declaration of love from Principal Horn Tim Thorpe shone throughout the piece and during the final movements when the evil Kastcheï is destroyed by the good Prince Ivan the orchestra displayed an impressive energy which had the audience pinned to their seats.