Putting together two Russian composers’ very different responses to Shakespeare’s greatest love story – as the RSNO and music director Peter Oundjian did in this barnstorming concert – proved such a revealing, satisfying experience, and one so rich in musical storytelling, that it’s a wonder it’s not done all the time.
Oundjian’s opening to Tchaikovsky’s heart-on-its-sleeve tone poem Romeo and Juliet felt unexpectedly cool, beautifully crafted too, and no less evocative for that – but he saved the seething passions for a crisp, driven middle section, and his care in shaping the work’s desperate final chords really hammered home the story’s tragedy.
After the interval, his selection of movements from Prokofiev’s ballet music for Romeo and Juliet was a masterclass in orchestral power and control, at once overwhelming (in a magnificently ear-shattering Duke’s Command) and poignant (in principal flautist Katherine Bryan’s heartrending solo in The Young Juliet, for example). It brilliantly captured the composer’s sometimes unsettling blend of ironic detachment and moving sincerity.
Running through both pieces was a vivid sense of narrative – there was no doubt as to where we were in Shakespeare’s pitiful tale. But what threatened to upstage them both was the evening’s (maybe) gamble. Khachaturian’s wacky Piano Concerto is hardly staple concert fodder, but Chinese pianist Xiayin Wang’s blistering account – with breathtakingly athletic sprints up and down the keyboard, and a steely determination to even her lyrical playing – was matched by the RSNO players on exceptionally powerful form, and it was riveting listening from start to finish, thrilling and compelling.