There has been a profusion of concerts this year with programmes featuring works by Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen, no doubt due to musical directors succumbing to the notion that a milestone anniversary of a composer’s birth is significant. This concert, however, had a third dimension with the inclusion of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor. Born in 1873, just eight years after Sibelius and Nielson, he was very much their musical contemporary. The great skill of conductor Cristian Măcelaru was to demonstrate just how different this generation were from each other in approach, style and orchestration.

Cristian Măcelaru © Sorin Popa
Cristian Măcelaru
© Sorin Popa
The programme ran from the most familiar to the least, beginning with Jean Sibelius’ celebrated nationalist symphonic poem Finlandia. Despite being such a well known work, the perfectly weighted brass choir of tuba, trombones and horns exuded such tremendously warm and deeply resonant tones in the opening chords, that the audience was immediately drawn into the atmosphere of the piece. Măcelaru maintained a healthy balance between the sections and was clearly in command as the music built with the CBSO strings in particularly good form. In an otherwise faultless performance I felt the pianissimo section associated with the hymn “Be Still My Soul” was a tad too heavy and an opportunity to maximise contrast was not fully exploited. However, Măcelaru continued to build on the pressure and intensity. With the help of lightning crisp staccato punctuation from the trumpets and a thunderous underpinning from the tuba, he was able to brew up a truly tempestuous climax.

The central focus of the evening was not the post-interval symphony, but the first-half concerto. Simon Trpčeski walked out onto the stage with an air of supreme confidence. It was clear before a single note was played that he was here to enjoy himself, and through his composure he forged a connection with the audience that relaxed the hall even while he adjusted his stool. Sympathetically supported by the orchestra, his first notes teased the ear, hinting the theme, seducing the audience to fully engage with the music. Rachmaninov is famous for his long flowing lyrical lines and they require some deep interpretation to make them come off. As a virtuoso pianist himself, he was renowned for the exceptional technical demands of his compositions. Trpčeski was equal to both the musicality and the technique required, his fingers whirling, hammering, tickling, skipping and skating over the keyboard at his whim. The CBSO accompanied with some lush romantic strings. There were moments, however, where I felt they slightly overpowered the soloist. Nonetheless, I was able to immerse myself in the sheer joyous drama of the piece, so well played by Trpčeski, and by the conclusion I was quite elated.

Indeed, Trpčeski seemed to have anticipated the effect he had had on the audience and followed up with an unprogrammed but no-so-impromptu musical treat in a recital of Rachmaninov’s Sonata for Cello and Piano (the third movement). Ably rising to the challenge of playing alongside Trpčeski was CBSO principal cellist Eduardo Vassallo. The playing was delightful and serene, providing calm after the drama of the concerto that was just right for leading into the interval.

The final piece of the programme made for a short second 'half'. Nielsen’s Symphony no. 4 is entitled “The Inextinguishable”. In terms of its vitality, like a well known brand of varnish, it does exactly what it says on the tin. It is full of irrepressible life, energy and bon viveur. Nielsen noted that the symphony should be played in a way that describes an elemental will to live. It is written without breaks between the movements and begins with a blitzkrieg. Instantly, the long bowing lyrical romantic mood of Rachmaninov was forgotten as the CBSO burst into life. Măcelaru seemed to come alive, noticeably stepping up a gear and sculpting the orchestral sound. There are a lot of pairings and echoes in the orchestration and these were all executed with aplomb. The timpanists provided a particularly enjoyable passage in their duel, really giving it some welly. The CBSO was on good form and Măcelaru was able to bring out the best from each section in painting this vivid picture of life.

Reflecting afterwards on the concert I could not help but think about the differences in this generation. Măcelaru clearly understood all three in real depth and was able to bring something new and insightful to all of them, particularly the Nielsen symphony. But the lasting memory of the night for me will be the golden touch of pianist Simon Trpčeski in what was a truly tremendous display of virtuosic artistry.

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