Recent concerts by the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra have been distinguished by a noticeably high level of enthusiastic engagement by the musicians, a pleasing sign of collective relief that we are now hopefully finally emerging from the Covid-19 era once and for all.
The latest of these, on June 2 in the Main Hall of the Thailand Cultural Centre, was no exception, with all ranks of the orchestra firing on all cylinders in a mouthwateringly tuneful programme that opened with Brahms' gargantuan Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat major, featuring the fine Italian concert pianist Irene Russo. Conducted by Music Director Michel Tilkin, the other two pieces also reflected very well the core Romantic repertoire that this partnership has explored so fruitfully in the recent seasons since Tilkin's appointment in 2018. Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and Richard Wagner's Flying Dutchman Overture were on this occasion also marked by a strong commitment and focus.
Russo made her debut here three years ago in a marvellous performance of Beethoven's mighty Emperor Concerto in E-flat major, and in an historic sense Brahms' own final work in this genre is very much that work's worthy successor -- very similar in its seriousness of emotional tone and grand scale, while very closely related in tonality. Cast in four robust movements, not the conventional three, the 50-minute-long masterpiece has truly symphonic structural characteristics and dimensions, with the solo part itself continuously woven into to the organic fabric of the orchestral score.
Without a doubt an extremely bold way in which to begin a concert, the work opened with the warmest of French Horn solos in tandem with the piano's first delicate arpeggiations. In a swift change of mood herculean piano pyrotechnics immediately ensued, with Russo taking centre stage as she drew all attention to her highly passionate demeanour. Exceptionally well developed pianistic touch was immediately much in evidence as she traversed the whole range of the Steinway keyboard with total command.
The second movement allegro appassionato is the most highly charged of the concerto, described with no little irony by the composer as a "little wisp of a scherzo" (it is by no means small), and Russo really came alive here in the most fiery passages of latter-day "Sturm und Drang". Meanwhile the attention to rhythmic detail and accuracy on the part of Tilkin and RBSO was admirable. Instead of falling to the normal relative minor for this movement, Brahms cleverly raises the tonality here to D minor, which has the effect of heightening the tension to fever pitch. The almost unbearable sense of anxiety and angst in this music was captured very nicely in this interpretation.
And so to the famous, poignant violoncello solo which dominates the reflective andante, played here persuasively by Apichai Leamthong. Brahms borrowed this orchestration idea from Clara Schumann's own piano concerto, and the loving duet, which played out between Russo's piano part and the cello solo reminded the listener of the close relationship between Clara and Johannes Brahms -- exquisite. The jovial and carefree finale continued in a similar vein, culminating in a triumphant, resounding conclusion. For an encore, Russo played an arrangement of Puccini's aria Nessun Dorma from Turandot.
Michel Tilkin then became the focus of attention for an enjoyable and accomplished reading of Schubert's famous Unfinished Symphony. A relatively understated two-movement masterpiece alongside the giant concerto played before the interval, Tilkin coaxed some beautifully etched phrasing from the players of the RBSO, effecting a somewhat more peaceful atmosphere in the TCC auditorium.
Richard Wagner's Flying Dutchman Overture is one of his earlier creations, in which the youthful verve of the composer led him to instrumental part writing that makes almost unreasonable demands on the players. It is one thing for orchestral musicians to negotiate occasionally severe technical challenges, but continually thorny passage work can be truly daunting, not least from the point of view of pure mental concentration. The RBSO strings in particular appeared to be full of admirable verve and drive here, clearly relishing the challenge at the end of this memorable concert.