Once again we welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to one of their satellite venues around the UK here at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton, for an exciting programme of Czech, Polish and Finnish music. Our conductor was the ebullient and hard-working Alan Buribayev, whom we saw here two years ago in a fantastic concert that was the winner of the 2016 Annual Chrisparkle Award for Best Classical Concert. So we knew we were going to be in for a treat. This was also our first chance to see Alexandra Wood as First Violinist for the orchestra.
We started with the overture to Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, his 1866 opera that remains one of his best-known works. The overture was written separately, before the rest of the opera, which possibly explains why it’s such an arresting stand-alone piece of music. The strings of the Royal Philharmonic could not resist the opportunity to launch into a full-scale attack on Smetana’s buzzy, vibrant, compelling arrangement, which gripped the audience instantly like a hundred angry bumble bees and did not let go for six brilliant minutes. A great way to start the concert.
Then it was time for the orchestra to disperse whilst the heavy mob brought in the Grand Steinway for our soloist for the afternoon, Alexander Romanovsky, a (fairly) last minute replacement for the original billing of Mark Bebbington, so we’d hoped he’d had long enough to practice Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F Minor, Op 21. We needn’t have worried. Mr Romanovsky takes to the stage like a snazzy younger version of Will Self, serious and controlled, seated business-like at the piano awaiting his cues. Whilst he’s not playing he simply looks straight ahead, relaxed but unemotional, almost like a non-participatory observer – but looks clearly can be deceptive.
If he gives off an unemotional air, that doesn’t translate to his playing. He has the most exquisite lightness of touch, delicately coaxing the fullest and most resounding note from each deliberately pressed piano key. He’s the perfect exponent for Chopin at his most fluttery, his fingers going nineteen-to-the-dozen up and down the keyboard whilst his expression remains one of swan-like calm. It was an incredible performance; and really drew out all Chopin’s superb melodies that are packed into this vivacious concerto, especially the final movement, which I found particularly exciting. When it was all over, Mr Romanovsky allowed himself to crack a smile, so I guess he was pleased at the result. He certainly should have been.
After the interval we returned for a performance of Sibelius’ Symphony No 2 in D Major, Op 43. I’d not heard this symphony before and, I must confess gentle reader, I found it a real challenge. Whilst some of Sibelius’ music has an instant appeal, there’s also quite a lot that sounds to me rather murky and hard to appreciate on first hearing. The excellent programme notes discuss how the first movement of this piece is like a mosaic, with small fragments of music appearing disparately at first but finally coming together to create a whole. Well, I have to confess I found that rather obscure whole hard to recognise! Of course, the RPO were on great form, and individual moments sounded terrific. But I couldn’t grasp it somehow.
The second movement felt easier: tempo andante, ma rubato – so, at a moderate pace but not rigidly; flexible, to bring out the emotion, and I thought the orchestra (and Mr Buribayev) achieved this brilliantly. The third and fourth movements seemed so crammed with all sorts of musical ideas, that it came across as a difficult and challenging piece to listen to, exhausting even; but also incredibly rewarding. There were some truly superb passages that really sang out, and I think I need to give the symphony another listen before long to try to appreciate what I missed!
Another superb performance by the Royal Philharmonic; when the audience’s sustained applause brought Mr Buribayev back to the podium for a fourth time, no one was in any doubt the extent to which the whole programme had been appreciated. This was another matinee performance by the RPO; it’s great if that encourages a wider age range of concertgoers, although I still, personally, prefer my classical concerts in the evening. I look forward to their evening of Ballet music coming up in June!