Surrealists would surely enjoy the conversation reported in biographer Davida Krista's 1996 George Balanchine between the eponymous choreographer and Stravinsky. Balanchine: “I wonder if you'd like to do a little ballet with me.” Stravinsky: “For whom?” Balanchine: “For some elephants.” Stravinsky: “How old?” Balanchine: “Very young.” Stravinsky: “All right. If they are very young elephants, I will do it.” Stamina may have been less the issue in the four-minute Circus Polka (1942) than the mental agility to cope with the many off-beat accents which skew the ordinarily two-step polka. Humour in this quirkily energetic opener from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra twinkled through horn/clarinet and tuba/bassoon duo moments which followed the rousing introduction. Muscular trombone interventions reminded us of the work's Barnum and Bailey Circus origins. Reliable metre finally arrives in the cheerful closing bars in the now Hannibalesque Marche Militaire borrowed from the first of Schubert's Op. 51 set.

Igor Levit © Felix Broede
Igor Levit
© Felix Broede

More prominent borrowing featured in the other Stravinsky work which bookended this imaginatively interlinked, all-Russian programme. It's touching to witness the affection and admiration of a revolutionary composer for a predecessor, in this case Tchaikovsky. The elder's song, “Lullaby in a Storm” opens Stravinsky's 1934 Divertimento from The Fairy's Kiss, harvested from from the 1928 ballet of the same name. The string sound between flute and clarinet phrases was lovely. A tender string quartet depicted the vulnerability of the boy who, in Hans Christian Anderson's source tale The Ice Maiden becomes separated from his mother in a storm. This opening "Sinfonia" featured many soloists to great effect. RSNO Guest Principal Horn Andrew Budden stood out, not only as the leader of of an excellent five-horn section, but for some impressive descant work.

Lovers of Petrushka's Shrovetide Fair scene, would have recognised the outdoor, bucolic feel in this Divertimento's second movement, “Danses Suisses”. The RSNO really seemed to enjoy this passage, as did conductor James Feddeck, standing in at short notice for an indisposed Santtu-Matias Rouvali.

Much of the beautiful music in this ballet seems at odds with the story's theme of separation, specifically from mother and, in later years, fiancée. Seduction, rather than abduction is the levering tool and I felt that the RSNO skilfully balanced the light and dark sides of enchantment. The fairy's final 'reveal' involves three flutes, here ably led by RSNO Principal Flute Katherine Bryan, who contributed enormously to this piece.

Stravinsky's reverential borrowings chimed nicely with the programme's central work, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor Op.23. Over-familiarity with the introduction normally causes me some deflation. Here, however, there was genuine surprise. The horn 'fanfare' was followed by an unmistakable 'foot off the gas' feel - a laid back rather than tormented take. There would be plenty of time for torrid gestures, the first of which was soon to follow in the solo passage of dramatic diminished chords which separates statements of this main theme.

A dapper Igor Levit seemed to enjoy the piano's introspective and searching moments as much as the more technically demanding, vigorous cadenzas. A fine example of the former occurred in the opening Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso, where the piano echoed a wistful theme beautifully introduced by Adrian Wilson's oboe and John Cushing's clarinet. I was pleased by this balanced approach across the work, feeling that a successful concerto explores all moods equally. In the work's many vigorous moments Levit proved himself to have plenty of firepower.

Tchaikovsky's gift for beautifully crafted melody shone in the central Andantino semplice. Having picked up the melody from flute accompanied with pizzicato strings, Levit then provided wonderful filigree ornamentation over a further orchestral statement.

The closing Allegro con fuoco, the most Russian-sounding of the movements, magically combined the vigorous and the soaring. Its triple metre theme, with accented second beat, really skipped along; when the orchestra provided a slowly ascending theme Levit scurried above with ornamental passages. Following the rousing tutti theme, the explosive piano cadenza brought the work to a electrifying ending, resulting in a huge cheer and warm applause from the Usher Hall audience.

Prokofiev's Symphony no. 1 in D major Op.25 "Classical" borrowed not from individuals simply from an earlier period and style. In the opening Allegro, the classical period's hallmark drive towards new keys, and home again, was energetically conveyed. Prokofiev's wrong-footing contrapuntal treatment of the principal theme injected a momentary sense of obstacle into what is traditionally an assured journey. Feddeck's relaxed, expansive gestures highlighted the Larghetto's necessary lack of pulse and imprisoning bar-lines. Following an elegant Gavotta, the closing Finale, which somehow suggested a crazed cousin of The Magic Roundabout theme, featured acrobatic flutes and impressively nimble strings. This was a fine performance.

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