Review – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Nigel Kennedy plays Brahms, Derngate, Northampton, 2nd June 2012

Nigel Kennedy plays BrahmsIt was a perfect start to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee weekend with a long-awaited concert by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with guest soloist Nigel Kennedy. I remember back in the late 1980s being absolutely knocked out by his crisp and sparky Vivaldi Four Seasons CD which had so much more attack and personality than any other recording of the Four Seasons I have heard before or since. So it was a no-brainer that we would book for this concert, and we’d been looking forward to it for over a year.

Andrew LittonThe Royal Philharmonic were conducted by Andrew Litton, whose performances we have appreciated in the past and who was at the Julliard School with Nigel Kennedy. Once again Mr Litton beamed his perky happiness throughout the evening, taking charge of the orchestra in a seemingly effortless way.

We started off with Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, which was a new one on Mrs Chrisparkle and me. It’s a bright and charming piece and a great way to open a concert. The orchestra were clearly on good form and I particularly enjoyed the punchy drums and percussion.

Next up was what would be the highlight in any other concert in which it featured – Elgar’s Enigma Variations. This really is a personal favourite of mine. It only took the first few seconds of its starting and my eyes instantly welled up with the atmosphere and emotion. It was a beautifully paced and balanced performance, including a really snappy Troyte variation and a delicately laid back R.P.A. Whenever I hear Nimrod, I always feel it’s possibly the most beautiful piece ever written – and then I hear the final variation, E.D.U., and for me it always trumps Nimrod’s ace. Another super performance, and quite rightly Andrew Litton invited virtually everyone in the orchestra to take their own individual bow. In a sense it was odd to play Enigma before the interval, rather than leaving it to the end, but with Mr Kennedy waiting in the wings I could see there was no alternative. We certainly left for our interval Sauvignon Blanc on a high.

In full swingOn our return, the male members of the orchestra (Andrew Litton apart) had reappeared in shirtsleeve order. I wasn’t sure if that was because they were universally hot, or whether it was to go along with Nigel Kennedy’s own informal style. If it was the latter, it’s slightly bizarre to have everyone conform to the nonconformist – but no matter. For vivacious style and content, this couldn’t be beaten. Mr Kennedy saunters up to the podium exchanging bon mots and giggles with half the orchestra before spending the first thirty seconds enjoying and praising the beauty of First Violinist Clio Gould, lamenting the fact that she’s “taken”. He trades a bit of laddish banter with “Andy” Litton – clearly an old friendship that works a treat here – and with “Dave” Cohen, first Cello, of whom he’s also obviously fond. He gives them all, and some members of the audience, a fist bump. Then he picks up his 1732 Carlo Bergonzi violin, turns his back to the audience, and Brahms’ Violin Concerto begins.

At first, his turning his back seems slightly rude; but as the piece progresses you realise it’s actually an act of great humility. It’s a good few minutes before the violin shows up in the first movement, and it’s a time for the orchestra to show off its prowess, so Mr Kennedy makes himself invisible for this time. When it’s his turn, he shifts about 135 degrees round so that he’s still on quite an odd angle to the audience, and starts to make the most brilliant music. His style is still that of the bold, boisterous Kennedy of the Four Seasons. When it came to the first movement cadenza, he played – according to the programme notes – the Fritz Kreisler version and it was stunning. You could have powered the entire lighting rig from his energy.

The whole performance was fantastic. For me, Nigel Kennedy elevated the art of being a soloist a hundredfold. He dazzled, yet remained an intrinsic part of the orchestra, never missing an opportunity by word or gesture to allow his colleagues to shine too. The partnership with Andrew Litton worked perfectly; they clearly have an understanding and appreciation of precisely how the other operates, and it becomes a joint venture of mutual respect and admiration. Each enables the other to soar.

Nigel KennedyWhen the concerto was over, we got the usual rounds of extremely well deserved applause and bows; and just when you thought Andrew Litton would come back for one more call, he stays away and leaves Nigel Kennedy centre stage with the orchestra for a full half hour’s worth of additional encores and banter. He thanks us for supporting live music – no worries, Nigel, the pleasure was ours; he continues to “big up” individual members of the orchestra, and why not; he generates another sequence of fist bumps; he starts to play a little tune on his “fiddle”, gets it slightly wrong and says a playful “oh sh*t”; then finally gives us some exuberant Brahms Hungarian Dances, with David Cohen’s First Cello acting as cimbalom – which works really well. He works some cunning and amusing variations in there too, which included, inter alia, the theme to Bonanza.

After all the rapturous reception was finished, the orchestra had dispersed and the audience was making their way to the exits, it was rather humbling to see Andrew Litton, now dressed in jumper and jeans, nip back on stage to collect his paperwork, a visual underlining of the fact he had earlier handed over the ultimate glories of the night to Nigel Kennedy. A superb concert, a privilege to see a soloist so in command of his instrument, and an orchestra worth going a long way to catch.

Review – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Holst’s The Planets, Jack Liebeck, Derngate, Northampton, 28th November

RPO Planets ConcertAnd so the new Royal Philharmonic Subscription series starts again with a jolly programme of Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor and Holst’s Planets Suite. They know what they’re doing, these programmers – this ultra-appealing programme meant there was barely a spare seat in the house.

Andrew Litton Andrew Litton was our conductor; he has a very formal appearance in full frock coat and very tidy hair. He looks like a man who is very comfortable with the number of pies he has eaten – quite a few, but not all of them. His style is not over-demonstrative although he does get a bit carried away at the most vigorous moments.

In the past I’ve always found the Cockaigne Overture goes on a bit, but this time it sounded fresh as a daisy, colourfully illustrating all those London characters with spark and shazam.

This was a mere “amuse bouche” before Jack Liebeck’s solo in the Mendelssohn. I am new to the music of Mr Liebeck. He is thirty years old and his sister went to school with my cousin’s daughter. When he was a boy he was really into his football. Jack LiebeckThat’s not the Jack Liebeck who takes centre stage with his violin though. I was both extremely impressed and somewhat disappointed by his performance. Extremely impressive was the actual sound he got out of the instrument. Rarely will you hear a violin sound so pure, so clean, so accurate. If his violin were a singer, it would be a choirboy whose voice is yet to break. It’s quite exquisite. However on the downside, I found it just a trifle cold, passionless, reserved. You don’t get any extra appreciation of the music by watching his facial expressions. He’s kind of the opposite of this lady.

But I am not quibbling because the sound was super.

After the interval we had the old warhorse that is Holst’s The Planets. We all know this piece like the back of our collective hands, don’t we. There’ll be no surprises here then. WRONG! I’ve never heard Mars played with such thrilling attack. It crashed and clashed on the stage, stabbed and shook, looked you right in the eyes and defied you not to be carried away. And thus the standard for the rest of the evening was set.

Venus sounded absolutely beautiful, Mercury was proper ethereal, Jupiter every inch the chart topping magnificent thing it is; Saturn was bold and brave, Uranus vivid and jokey and Neptune reflective and disconcerting. I have to say though that there was a hugely discordant wrong note played in my favourite passage of Uranus (no smutty jokes please) and it sounded horrendous to my ears, but I forgave them because the rest of the show was so splendid. Just as Holst would have liked, they bussed the Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus up to Northampton so that they could go “la la la” at the end of Neptune backstage, with no trace of where the voices were coming from. Spooky, effective, fantastic.

You spoil us, Mr Ambassador.