At its heart was the UK premiere of James MacMillan’s 3rd Piano Concerto, The Mysteries of Light, originally written for the Minnesota Orchestra and French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and played once again here by the same soloist under the direction of RSNO music director Peter Oundjian.
It is an extraordinary work, set out in five continuous sections, inspired by a set of meditations – the Luminous Mysteries – written by Pope John Paul II. Musically, the key element is a snatch of plainsong, transformed by MacMillan into ever changing spiritual illuminations through ingenious timbres – from ethereal percussive chimes, crackles and pops to shrill, grotesque woodwind choruses – that encircle the piano’s persistent chordal statements like ghostly halos.
But there is nothing contained or self-centred in a concerto that draws endless inspiration from its solo protagonist, snatching moments of humour – Thibaudet’s vamped accompaniment to the leader’s disfigured fiddle dance – as well as moments of sumptuous beauty and magical repose, and an ending as glitteringly ecstatic as any of Rachmaninov’s.
It sat well as a follow-on from Britten’s clean-cut Simple Symphony, in which Oundjian drew an energetic but meaty sonority from the RSNO strings.
The evening closed with the full orchestral might of Holst’s astronomical sizzler The Planets, and a performance that was more level-headed than genuinely exciting, and for which the offstage RSNO Ladies Chorus – in the grand circle foyer – seemed wrongly positioned.