An almost full house to see another concert by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Derngate in Northampton – a Grand Tchaikovsky Gala. So you knew in advance it was going to be a musically bumptious night and as usual the Royal Philharmonic were well up for the job. Our conductor for the evening was Grzegorz Nowak, whose biography in the programme virtually filled up two pages. He’s a commanding figure on the podium – sometimes looking avuncular, sometimes stern; imposingly broad-shouldered he sways stiffly with his baton and clearly goes to the same hairdresser as Boris Johnson.
First on offer was Marche Slave, which I don’t think I’d heard before. It’s kind of Tchaikovsky by numbers, and almost every style of music of which you think he’d be capable is crammed into this piece. So it makes for a stimulating introduction, but it’s not something you’d go out of your way to check back on.
Much more rewarding was the Piano Concerto No 1, with soloist Alessandro Taverna (I’m sure that’s a bistro in Corfu). When he walks on to the stage he looks slight and unassuming; he reminded me of the young Roger Rees in Nicholas Nickleby when he’s all earnest and insecure. He took a while to get comfortable on the piano stool too, with his jacket tails getting stuck in an out-of-focus position. But once he started, he was genius! His playing was really superb. He captured the drama and romanticism of the piece, and provided the necessary light and shade to break up the otherwise relentless Tchiakovskiness of the evening. I didn’t get past Grade IV piano so I’m no judge but I don’t think he put a foot or indeed a hand wrong in the entire piece. The audience loved it and gave him possibly the warmest reception I’ve heard at one of these concerts. As a treat afterwards he encored with a short jazzy piece from Friedrich Gulda’s “Play Piano Play” which really showed his skill and bravura.
After the interval we got the Capriccio Italien (which is not, as I had originally thought, an antipasto) which seemed to be a lot of introductory fanfare but then turning out a bit insubstantial as a piece. Fantastic sound from the brass section though. Then there were some extracts from the Nutcracker, and you realise as you hear them what terrific short tunes they are. Putting them together like that is like having a plate of five sweet cakes which you eat one after another. Gorgeous whilst you’re munching, but quickly over, and providing a slight feeling of sickliness afterwards. Mrs Chrisparkle and I also observed that it is impossible to hear “Dance of the Mirlitons” without singing to oneself “everyone’s a fruit and nutcase” a la Frank Muir.
The final piece was (surprise surprise) the 1812 Overture. Chance for the percussion to rule, and they took the opportunity magnificently. I particularly liked the incessantly clanging chimes and of course the cannon sounds made by what sounded like the most intimidatingly large drum imaginable. It was all very enthralling and enjoyable. Again the audience responded most warmly and with great respect. Shame the two violinists furthest stage right at the front couldn’t have suspended their conversation during the applause. There’s no greater way of dissing the audience! Anyway, small cavil. We had a great time, and look forward to the RPO’s return next month!