This concert, with works from Finnish, Norwegian and Russian composers, could broadly be divided into two halves. The first captivated the majority of the audience, but might have seen a few left wanting. The second, on the other hand, could not have failed to move every listener present.
The programme began with five excerpts from Sibeliuss Pellas and Mlisande Incidental music Op. 46 (Suite). The opening movement, At the Castle Gate is widely known as the theme tune for The Sky at Night, and the Philharmonia Orchestra with their rich, thick sound reminded us just how lyrical this music can be. Other highlights included the second excerpt Mlisande, which featured an exquisite cor anglais solo from Jill Crowther, and the final Mlisandes death in which the notion of a tender lament was borne out by the sheer intensity of the playing.
Here, as throughout the evening, Vladimir Ashkenazy exerted his peerless brand of control over the proceedings. This may not have been to everyones taste in the first half, as it led to some passages feeling excessively languid. The expression injected into every single note, however, and the precision demonstrated across the board, were enough to win over the majority of the hall.
Nikolai Luganskys performance of Griegs Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 contained so much texture and thought that it was a wonderful antidote to any idea that the piece is simply a populist tour de force from start to finish. Following the bold opening to the first movement, Lugansky really indulged in some of the slower passages, bringing out the intricacies in every single note. His heartfelt playing in the second movement positively twinkled and sparkled in the October air, while soloist and orchestra alike brought out the dance rhythms of the third movement, the strings in particular possessing an inner intensity.
It is a tribute to Ashkenazy rather than an insult to Lugansky to say that even the performance of the Grieg was eclipsed by that of Rachmaninovs Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27. Here, the precision so inherent in the evening as a whole was met with an equal dose of energy and drama. The first movement was rhythmically superb, while the second witnessed some vibrant phrasing with the brass and pizzicato playing proving particularly memorable.
Mark van de Wiels clarinet solo in the third movement could not have been better, while an incredible moment came when the cor anglais and oboe strains were picked up by the strings. It was not simply the excitement in the instant that it happened that made it exceptional, but the way in which everything was then suddenly brought down again and phrased off exquisitely.
With the last movement thrilling from start to finish, and the final phrase punctuated to perfection, the audience knew that they had just heard something special. Suffice to say that it is not often that the Royal Festival Hall erupts in a manner more usually associated with a Proms arena.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk