I reckon that attending live performances is habit-forming and after a while, if you see enough, you can end up on auto-pilot. That’s the reason that Mrs Chrisparkle and I kept checking our tickets on Sunday to ensure that this visit of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra really was scheduled for 3pm and not the usual 7.30pm. It just didn’t quite feel right to be there in the afternoon! There’s no doubt, however, that the matinee performance enabled several more children to attend the concert which is a great thing, especially as this was by no means a children’s programme – there were four, perfectly meaty, substantial and adult pieces of classical music to enjoy, and I hope any new youthful concertgoers found it as exciting and rewarding as we did.
Our conductor for this concert was Rory Macdonald, whom we’ve seen just once before, when Natalie Clein performed Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B Minor three years ago. He still doesn’t seem to have aged at all, and I’m more than ever sure that he has a grand selfie mouldering in his attic somewhere. He’s an exuberant conductor, one who likes to reach out on tippytoes to get the maximum out of his musicians. With his sleek black hair and formal attire, I couldn’t get the vision of Mary Poppins’ cartoon penguins out of my head. But he does a great job, so far be it from me to take the mickey.
Our first piece was Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. What a grand way to start a concert, with its compelling tunes and robust orchestration. It’s a superbly muscular and self-confident piece of music – everything an overture should be – and the orchestra rose to the challenge magnificently. I also appreciated the slightly pacier tempo which made its strength and power stand out. A great start.
Next we had two pieces of music that were new to me. Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34 by Edvard Grieg. I love Grieg’s music and it was a treat to discover something new by him. All the woodwind and percussion left the stage so that we only had the string players – I say “only”, but the lush sound they produced was sensational for these two pure and sincere reflective pieces. There’s nothing comfortable about the Elegiac Melodies, and I found them strangely disconcerting; but I really loved the performance.
After this, there was some general reorganisation as the rest of the orchestra returned and a platform was provided, centre stage, for our soloist, the cellist Michael Petrov. Amongst all the black evening dresses of the ladies of the orchestra and the formal suits of the men, Mr Petrov strode on to the stage in a white shirt not tucked in at the waist, no collar, no jacket, no tie, but with a calm and creative aura about him. He looked like a benign dentist – the sort who doesn’t complain at you if he suspects you haven’t been cleaning your teeth properly.
Mr Petrov was there to play Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op 33. This was another piece I’d never heard before and I was instantly taken by it. Tchaikovsky takes a relatively simple theme and wraps it around his little finger with seven variations and an astonishing cadenza from Mr Petrov where you could hear a pin drop, so alert were the audience to the passionate tones he produced from his 1846 J B Vuillaume cello – proving that old is often best. The Variations are a great vehicle to show off a bravura performance and Mr Petrov did that with apparently effortless ease. He brought out the humour of some of the cheekier variations and the solemnity of the andante sections. No sheet music, no grand gestures; just a thoughtful and disciplined performance that held the audience spellbound. We absolutely loved it – and now I need to find a decent recording of this piece for my own music library.
This performance was of the Fitzenhagen arrangement of the Variations; Fitzenhagen was the principal cellist with the Orchestra of the Imperial Russian Music Society in Moscow, to whom Tchaikovsky had dedicated the work, but then who chopped and changed the Variations around, much to the annoyance of Tchaikovsky. But maybe Fitzenhagen knew what he was doing, because it’s such an enjoyable mini-concerto, and it’s usually his version that gets performed.
After the interval we returned for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 4 in A Major, Op 40, better known as the Italian Symphony. As soon as its happy and playful major theme strikes up in the first movement, you’re transported away to sunny climates and a lovely Mediterranean lifestyle. Under Mr Macdonald’s enthusiastic direction, the orchestra brought us all the joy of the first movement, then to change dramatically to the crestfallen sound of the second movement, with its connotations of funereal respect, the stately minuet of the third movement and the raucous scampering of the saltarello dance of the fourth. It was all performed with amazing vigour and energy and had the audience on the edge of its seat with excitement at the end.
A fantastic concert that introduced me to some riveting new pieces and a super soloist. And it was all over by teatime! The next classical offering from the Royal Philharmonic will be in April, with a varied programme of Czech, Polish and Finnish music. Can’t wait!