EIF: RSNO / Chan 

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Five years ago Lukas Vondracek was a last minute substitute for Sir Andras Schiff in an SCO concert featuring Dvorak’s rarely-performed Piano Concerto that also had to cope with a last-minute change of conductor.

At this year’s Edinburgh Festival the Czech pianist was called upon to step in at the last moment when German percussionist Martin Grubinger tested positive for Covid. Having the Dvorak under his fingers was remarkable, but having Tan Dun’s Percussion Concerto, The Tears of Nature, in his repertoire was unlikely, so the programme was overhauled so that the first half included The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas and the First Piano Concerto of Franz Liszt.

Much like Rossini’s William Tell and The Lone Ranger, for people of a certain age the Dukas will always mean Mickey Mouse in Disney’s Fantasia, but those folk are getting on a bit now, so perhaps younger ears can enjoy the work’s narrative orchestral colour on its own terms, without the pictures.

Its last-minute inclusion probably explained some mushy rhythmic balance between the sections as the pace of the work built, but the orchestra’s bassoons were on point and first clarinet Timothy Orpen sparkled for the first of many solo moments over the evening.

Orpen was a crucial ingredient in the Liszt as well, and conductor Elim Chan found parallels with the Dukas in the dramatic shaping of the work as its later sequence of movements unfolded. Those mourning the loss of the Tan Dun were often reminded that the piano is a percussion instrument in Vondracek’s powerful playing and together he and Chan constructed a compelling case for a work that is not a common inclusion in concert programmes at present. His addition of a Chopin Nocturne as an encore did rather emphasise its melodic debts, however.

All of this built towards the evening’s planned conclusion with Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra as if always intended. Here the RSNO strings sounded more focussed from the start and Chan’s command of the work’s meticulous structure was masterly. There would be no sense in singling out individual soloists because there were quality performances throughout the orchestra. A superb reading of a masterwork, it deserved a fuller house.

Keith Bruce