On Friday 2nd November, the rotunda of Edinburgh’s Usher Hall resounded to the pent-up passion of young love, death, tragedy, and bloody murder. In expressing the swelling, passionate drama of these composers, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra excelled.
Billed as a night of passion, the RSNO certainly delivered. The evening opened with a pairing of the gentle prelude and pained finale, the Liebestod (“love-death”), from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Inspired by Celtic medieval legend, Tristan, a victorious Cornish knight, travels to Ireland to carry back the Princess Isolde to Cornwall as a bride for his uncle, the King.
On the journey some sorcery leads to the couple unexpectedly falling in love, and Wagner’s score expresses all the manic, overwhelming energy of the affair that ends, of course, in tragedy. The sheer depth and scale of Wagner’s work guarantee that it is always affecting and impressive to hear—and even more so in person. The rising strings of the climax seem set to burst until the ultimate release, and the slow fading away.
A personal highlight of the evening for me was the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1, which followed Tristan. Very ably played by Roman Rabinovich, the hammering opening piano section—the battle between piano and orchestra—as one swells briefly, only to subside and give way to the other, was quite stunning.
Tchaikovsky is quoted in the programme for the evening describing the concerto as “a struggle between two forces of equal standing… a powerful orchestra… against which the small, inconspicuous opponent… pits its all, and triumphs”. It is deservedly one of his best known pieces and anyone unfamiliar should certainly hear it—and will never forget it.
After the interval, the concert closed with a suite from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. As with Tchaikovsky’s piece, which suffered ruthless initial criticism from pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, Prokofiev’s ballet, written in the years before the Second World War, was the subject of much argument. He originally considered, among other storylines for a ballet, his own setting of Tristan and Isolde, but settled on Romeo and Juliet. Much to the disapproval of the Soviet authorities, his original version featured a decidedly un-Shakespearean happy ending, and this doubtless contributed to the ballet’s long-delayed production and live performance.
Prokofiev’s own arrangements of concert suites from the music were perhaps even more successful than the ballet itself. In their programme, the RNSO write that “tonight’s sequence draws together some of the most powerful and arresting music from the ballet”—I am far less familiar with Prokofiev, but the entire emotional range displayed in the play finds itself well borne out by his score, from which the selections were played in sequence. The innocent, softly melodic theme for Juliet; the very familiar Dance of the Knights; and, the stunning, cinematic conclusion to Act 2, where Romeo declares his intention to avenge the murder of his fallen friend Mercutio, with its ringing pulse of brass, drums, and strings.
This very well-chosen sample of classic romantic and early twentieth century pieces, conducted by Ludovic Morlot, made for an enjoyable and thrilling evening’s entertainment.
Written by: Jamie Weir