Review – Alexandra Dariescu Performs Rachmaninov, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 15th May 2016

Alexandra Dariescu performs RachmaninovThere’s nothing quite like a classical concert when you’ve been a bit stressed. That old line about music having charms to soothe the savage breast? Darn right. It doesn’t matter if it’s soft and gentle or belting and Wagnerian, music can take the place of a sensual massage any day of the week. I was in the mood for a musical massage, so the timing was perfect! And it’s always a pleasure to welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to Northampton, the artistic hub of the East Midlands as I like to call it.

Our conductor for this mixed programme of German and Russian music was rising star M. Fabien Gabel, music director of the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, and a handsome and debonair chap to boot. I always like to observe the different ways that conductors work to get the best out of their orchestras. Some get swept away by a veritable tsunami of enthusiasm; others take control with a mere flick of their baton. M. Gabel takes a moderate path, his body lurching at a positive angle towards whatever section of the orchestra he’s addressing. The motion would be enough to send me to the chiropractors – but it certainly works well for him.

Fabien GabelThe first item on the musical agenda was the overture to Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. I do like a good overture to start the ball rolling, and I was unfamiliar with this piece. It’s a very enjoyable mix of the smooth and the staccato and I thought the orchestra did a terrific job with it – beautifully clear phrasing, excellent precision. And there wasn’t a whiff of Release Me about it.

After the overture, the violins had to form a string huddle in the corner of the stage whilst the big guys wheeled on the super Steinway. I can never decide if this rearrangement procedure helps to build up expectation or just looks a bit silly. Half and half, I guess. Leader of the orchestra Duncan Riddell took his seat only to send one of his chair chucks flying, so there was a little more rearrangement to take place before we were able to greet our soloist for the evening, the officially fabulous Alexandra Dariescu. We had already seen Miss Dariescu here before when she performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21, and had the interval crowd buzzing with excitement afterwards. This time she performed Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which is another RPO favourite – we saw it here three years ago performed by Peter Jablonski.

Alexandra DariescuAfter a minor contretemps between Miss Dariescu’s billowing dress and Mr Riddell’s violin stand (the dress, being the more substantial of the two, won), she sat down at the piano and gave us a most amazing performance, full of excitement, jokiness, passion and irreverence. From where we sit, we get a great view of the pianist’s hands on the keyboard. I can tell you there were times during that piece when they were a complete blur. My eyes could not assimilate all that dexterity, and it’s hard to imagine the brain messages that get processed to tell your fingers to move so quickly and so accurately. It took everyone’s breath away. Her reception was so enthusiastic that she returned for an encore – Ginastera’s Argentinian Dance No 2 – a charming little piece that I’d not heard before but full of South American flavour which flourished under Miss Dariescu’s delicate touch.

After the interval we were treated to a very grand experience – Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard this performed live before, and it goes without saying what a tremendous work of art it is. From those initial stabbing chords to the final triumph of its ending, there’s not a note wasted that doesn’t play a vital part in its overall effect and structure. It calls for vigour and bravado in its playing and it certainly got that. There’s so much going on during that performance that it was a wonder M. Gabel kept it all together – but he did. I was caught out by the sudden jump from third to fourth movement and it was only just before the end that I realised we were, indeed, just before the end. A hugely entertaining performance of what must be an extraordinarily demanding work. Thanks again to the Royal Philharmonic for continuing to bring their magic to us here in Northampton – may you never cease!

P. S. We weren’t able to order interval drinks – that’s the policy when there’s only a short time before the interval, half an hour we were told. That timing didn’t quite make sense to me, but hey ho. However, after all the piano shifting and the encore, the first part of the concert ended up being a good fifty minutes. Queueing unnecessarily for interval drinks is one of my pet hates, but I didn’t complain. Much. And actually the Beethoven was over relatively quickly, so I ended up finishing my Shiraz whilst walking home (a route that took me through a no-alcohol restricted zone but don’t tell anyone). I had already decided that if the police stopped me I was going to say “Beethoven made me do it.”

Review – Mozart Requiem, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th February 2014

Mozart RequiemOne of the good things about including the Northampton Bach Choir and the Boys and Men of All Saints Church Northampton in a Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concert at the Derngate is the fact that all their friends and families buy tickets so there is a virtually full house and always a fantastic atmosphere. Another is that they are extremely good at singing, but I mustn’t get ahead of myself.

Alexandra DariescuThis was the first time we’d seen the Royal Philharmonic since last summer, and we’ve definitely missed them. But I wasn’t entirely sure how much I would appreciate an evening of non-stop Mozart. Do you remember the criticism of him in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, that there are simply too many notes? That’s always struck a chord with me, if you’ll forgive the expression. However, the two pieces that made up the evening’s programme are so different in structure and content that you certainly don’t suffer a surfeit of Wolfgang.

Renato BalsadonnaThe first part of the evening was devoted to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21, with the Romanian soloist Alexandra Dariescu. She was BBC Music Magazine’s Rising Star in 2011 and 2013’s “Woman of the Future” for Arts and Culture, and it’s not hard to work out why. From where we usually sit in the auditorium you can very clearly see the pianist’s hands on the keyboard, and I have to say the dexterity with which Miss Dariescu launches herself on the ivories is extraordinary. This is not a piece that necessarily calls for quite as much intense expression as some piano solos we have seen – Janina Fialkowska last year playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 comes to mind. What it does require is immense skill, incredible clarity and a great feeling for all those Mozartian scales and arpeggios, especially in the first and final movements. The Andante section in the middle is instantly recognisable as the theme to Elvira Madigan, an essential track on any 1960s easy listening album; Elizabeth LlewellynI believe it’s even been used to flog woollen carpets in TV adverts in its time. It’s always rewarding to get the chance to hear a frequently heard piece of music in the context of its original setting, and with superb accompaniment from the orchestra Miss Dariescu made that lovely theme stand out. By the time we’d reached the final movement, I had become so mesmerised by her hands that I was struggling to concentrate. She could use that skill for hypnosis. It was a great performance that rightfully got a huge reception and during the interval the bar was buzzing with people discussing how skilfully she played it.

After our halftime Tempranillo we returned for the performance of Mozart’s Requiem. The Northampton Bach Choir and All Saints Choir had patiently sat in their seats for the duration of the piano concerto, but now it was their turn to shine. The conductor for the evening, Renato Balsadonna, is Chorus Director at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, and he was a great choice as his specialised ability to get the best out of the vocalists was really apparent. When we saw the Northampton Bach Choir at the Last Night of the Derngate Proms lastKitty Whately June, we thought they were a bit ragged at times, and suspected that there wasn’t a lot of understanding between the conductor and the choir. Not a bit of it this time. All throughout, the choir were absolutely at the top of their game – clear, forceful, gentle, emotional, triumphant and all the attributes in between – and all timed perfectly together.

Anthony GregoryThe four vocal soloists were also superb – soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn, Mezzo Kitty Whately, Tenor Anthony Gregory and Baritone David Stout – investing passion, authority and personality into this glorious music. Right from the start there was a feeling of instant attack from orchestra and choirs alike: a wall of sound that filled the theatre from top to bottom. There was a palpable sense of drama and power; surely this is the most stirring music that Mozart ever wrote? Excitement and strength from the Dies Irae and the Rex Tremendae; the beauty of the solo voices in the Tuba Mirum and Recordare; the haunting choral delicacy of the Lacrimosa; all building up to a stunning climactic Sanctus and Agnes Dei, and a superb final soprano solo by Miss Llewellyn in the Lux Aeterna, who I thought was magic throughout.

David StoutMy only criticism of the evening as a whole was that, as it came in at about one hour and fifty minutes, it would have been really nice to have a third, short, piece to start the proceedings, just so that we could have been introduced to the orchestra by themselves first. A little five-minute overture would have given us the chance to settle down and appreciate the various sounds that the RPO so skilfully make and get to know the conductor’s style. By going straight into the concerto at the beginning of the evening, all eyes were (quite rightly) on Miss Dariescu; and with the massed choirs and stunning soloist singers for the Requiem, I thought the orchestra itself rather missed out on their share of the glory of the evening.

Nevertheless it was still a fantastic concert with orchestra, choirs and soloists all on tip-top form. It’s a privilege to have this kind of entertainment on our doorstep.