The visit of a genuine classical virtuoso to the Thailand Cultural Centre is guaranteed to tempt a larger than usual audience, and indeed it was most refreshing to witness an almost packed auditorium towards the end of August for the latest concert by the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra, supported by B.Grimm Group.
Emile Naoumoff performs Grieg's Piano Concerto under the baton of Christian Kunert. (Photos: RBSO)
Those who were wise enough to attend were duly rewarded with musical proceedings of the very finest quality, as Bulgarian concert pianist Émile Naoumoff gave an excelsior rendition of perhaps that most iconic war-horse of all -- Grieg's Piano Concerto In A Minor. Bookended by Wagner's mighty overture to Die Meistersingers Von Nürnberg and Tchaikovsky's imposing Symphony No.4 In F Minor, the RBSO was conducted on this occasion by German maestro Christian Kunert, making his second appearance here.
The last pupil of legendary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger (who in her fabled Parisian studio raised generations of A-list modern period composers), Naoumoff's own development was guided by her wisdom from the tender age of seven until early adulthood. For the now 61-year-old Naoumoff, this was his highly anticipated debut appearance in Thailand, scheduled together with a weeklong series of masterclasses hosted by the Royal Bangkok Symphony School. With a team of top instrumental professors from the renowned Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, USA, it was inspiring indeed to see this incredible body of knowledge and experience being shared here.
Naoumoff's magnetically playful charisma and irresistible natural charm had been evident throughout all sessions at RBSS and RBSO likewise in the lead-up to his Grieg concerto. Thus, it came as no surprise to be reminded during his fabulous performance that apart from the requisite technical assurance and authoritative musical personality on the concert stage, the added strength and appeal of an artist's uniquely individual personality is arguably that third indefinable ingredient that sets apart such an artist from the rest of the crowd.
Most certainly a uniquely engaging character, Naoumoff's delightfully innocent, almost childlike demeanour, was manifest not least during his final curtain call to receive his bouquet of flowers from dignitaries, entering stage-right sporting an RBSO logo shirt in place of his white dress shirt -- thus endearing himself even more to the hearts of all present with this display of playful élan.
Grieg's piece itself of course starts with that famously furious downward cascade of the utmost seriousness, but Naoumoff immediately set out his stall on the magnificent Model D Steinway as he pounded out every note and chord with total commitment and conviction.
At the other end of the dynamic spectrum, equally evident as the work's exposition unfolded, was his feather-light touch in the quieter moments of sublime reverie or hushed introspection. The huge first movement cadenza itself is arguably the very heart of the composition, and this Naoumoff dispatched with an awe-inspiring brilliance which had everyone on the edge of their seats. The loudest passages had not only the lid of the Steinway visibly vibrating, but the immense power of his tone production fed right through the legs of the instrument and onto the wooden stage, felt by RBSO members as they awaited their next entry. Meanwhile, his quicksilver dexterity coaxed the most exquisite phrasing imaginable during passages that verged on the edge of silence.
The Adagio and Allegro moderato movements proceeded with similar effects, marked by pianism of the highest calibre. The former was riveting in its nostalgic reflection, whilst the latter benefitted from the electrifying Norwegian folk-dance tunes Halling and Springdans dispatched at precisely the correct, controlled tempo.
Following applause of the warmest variety, Naoumoff's encore was no less enchanting as he obliged with a lengthy creation once again spanning the entire gamut of emotions, moods, dynamics and tempi. Seemingly structured and clearly defined as it unfolded, what the audience probably didn't realise was that Naoumoff often takes these moments as an opportunity for pure improvisation.
Yes, this music was improvised on the spot, utilising his immense compositional flare! Such a rare and precious link to the very heart of modern-era musical discourse was an utter privilege to behold, and for the RBSO to accompany. One doesn't often feel the urge to extend to superlatives such as mind-bending or mind-blowing, but in this particular case, they both seem wholly appropriate.
The colossal proportions of Wagner's Die Meistersingers overture had served as a very fitting setting of the stage for this concert's main attraction, with its joyous blaze of C major orchestral opulence explored fully by Christian Kunert as he encouraged the RBSO to express themselves in a fully extrovert, unbounded manner. A successful Wagner performance invariably depends on total absorption and submission to the genius' artistic will and manifesto, with the conductor's own nationality naturally contributing to what felt like a most authentic interpretation.
Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.4 is a masterpiece that the RBSO knows extremely well, and a variety of conductors have taken subtlely different approaches to it over the seasons. As with the Wagner, Kunert brought an all-consumingly heart-on-sleeve mindset to the score which drove the ranks of the RBSO to feverishly high levels of excitement and passion. Brass, woodwind, percussion and string sections all gave of their collective best in a convincing bravura performance of distinction.