Review – Alexander Shelley Conducts Scheherazade, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 14th April 2013

Alexander Shelley Conducts ScheherazadeAfter a really busy weekend there are few more enjoyable prospects than to spend Sunday evening in the company of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at one of their regular visits to Northampton. Well we’d had an exceedingly busy weekend, so a triple bill of Russian classics was the perfect medicine.

Our conductor was Alexander Shelley. It was the first time we’d seen Mr Shelley, and he is a dignified, authoritative figure, clean-cut and enthusiastic to bring the best out of the performers in his charge.

First on the evening’s agenda was Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. A lively performance of this great attacking overture, the orchestra were already on top form and you could see Mr Shelley was intent on having a great time. I loved its periods of stateliness and sensuousness. A super start to the programme.

Peter JablonskiThen we had the usual hiatus of moving the Steinway into position, whilst members of the orchestra hover uncomfortably in corners. I wish they could do that a bit more seamlessly. Mr Shelley returned with the guest soloist, pianist Peter Jablonski, resplendent in a very trendy Nehru jacket, to play Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. What impressed me most about his performance was that he covered the keyboard with such speed and such ease; and also how he threw his entire body behind the expression. When he lunged down towards the bass notes he followed through by hurling his left hand right down almost to his ankles.

I’d forgotten what an amazingly entertaining piece this is. It constantly surprises you with its inventiveness, finding yet another variation on how to play that old theme. Sometimes it makes you laugh with its irreverence, at other times is overwhelms you with its typical romantic Rachmaninoviness. It was a superb performance and the whole orchestra gave Mr Jablonksi fantastic support.

Alexander ShelleyAfter a soothing Chenin Blanc, we returned for the final piece, a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. This is one of my favourite pieces of music, and the orchestra blew me away right from the start. The music is so representative of the sound of the sea, culminating in a shipwreck, and as it ebbs and flows over forty minutes or so, it really takes your imagination with it. That Mr Shelley led the orchestra through all its dramatic intensity with terrific attention to detail, and that the orchestra responded gloriously goes without saying. But what I wasn’t expecting was the leaders of each part of the orchestra to take such exquisite virtuoso solos. First Violinist, Clio Gould gave a performance of incredible subtlety and beauty; and when she was matched with harpist Suzy Willison-Kawalec, both of them brought out the absolute best in each other. Bassoonist Rebecca Mertens (I think) had gorgeous warmth to her playing, and lead cellist Tim Gill simply made his instrument sing. It was a riveting all round performance.

At the end we were treated to an encore, the final movement of Stravinsky’s Firebird, to send us all home with vibrant strings zinging in our ears. Mr Shelley generously allowed all sections of the orchestra to have their own special moment of appreciation from the audience, and they well and truly deserved it. For sheer enjoyment this programme was hard to beat.

Review – Julian Bliss Plays Mozart, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 4th November 2012

Julian Bliss plays MozartThe RPO goes Chamber! For this visit of the Royal Philharmonic, when we took our seats in the auditorium it was noticeable how many fewer musicians would be seated in that usual semi-circle round the podium. There was no provision for percussion, and apparently neither woodwind nor brass – for the first piece at least. And also no podium, as for this chamber recital Lead Violinist Clio Gould would direct the orchestra from the rather uncomfortable looking bar stool at the front of the stage. We liked her rather funky black outfit – what Mrs Chrisparkle would call “Edgy Boho”.

Clio GouldThe first piece was Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, without which title Stephen Sondheim would have been stumped. For something so famous, I think I’ve probably only heard it very occasionally all the way through. The RPO became a sea of strings and it was crisp, elegant and charming. I noted all the movements in the programme and I was expecting at some point to hear the original version of the Wombles’ Minuetto Allegretto, but that must come from some other moment of Mozart magic. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik has a rather sudden ending, which, unsurprisingly, I wasn’t expecting, so whilst everyone else had started applauding I was still precariously balancing a plastic beaker of Sauvignon Blanc and rapidly flipping programme pages, which didn’t feel like I gave it the response it deserved. Despite that, I appreciated it as a very beautiful warm-up.

A few extra musicians joined the stage in advance of the appearance of Julian Bliss as the clarinet soloist in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. When Mr Bliss arrives he looks scarcely fourteen years old, all boyish enthusiasm and shiny grey suit and shirt unbuttoned at the neck, standing out against the relative formality of the rest of the orchestra. The Clarinet Concerto itself is new to me, and is another entertaining and smile-inducing piece of Mozart and Mr Bliss played it immaculately. He just stood in a gap between Clio Gould and the cellos, with no music or music stand to shelter behind, and played the whole thing from memory. The mixture of clarinet and strings is a really warm, soft sound and I loved the way the clarinet integrated perfectly into the rest of the orchestra.

Julian BlissMr Bliss can make it sing too. He can make it velvety and treacly like a musical version of feather down; or give it full zip so that the instrument blazes a trail like a torch and the strings follow in its wake. It was a really enjoyable performance and I didn’t want it to end. Nor did the audience by the sound of it, with prolonged applause bringing him back to centre stage three times. He gets a great rapport with the other musicians – you can see in his eyes how he appreciates their performance too, which encourages both the soloist and orchestra to put in a great show. Afterwards, during the interval, we saw him talking to some people in the foyer, glass in hand. Is he old enough to consume alcohol in a public place?

On our return to the auditorium, the violinists’ chairs had been removed and all that was visible was some seating for the cellos and a centrally wheeled-on harpsichord. The final piece was Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and I guess they got the violinists to perform standing up to give it more energy. I love the Four Seasons, and I am very fond of Nigel Kennedy’s blockbuster CD recording of it from the late 80s, which for me is the definitive performance. So I was very interested to see what kind of spin Clio Gould and the rest of the RPO would put on it. It was classy, even stately at times, and brought out the romantic where Mr Kennedy brought out the quirky. I loved the way Ms Gould took complete control of the proceedings. Pausing after each movement, pulling dead strings from her bow, carefully putting her hair that had been tossed in rhythmic abandon during the previous movement back into its coiffured place, repositioning the sheet music, deep breathing and regaining focus, checking everyone was poised to continue; she didn’t mind how long it took, she wasn’t going to carry on until she was good and ready. I absolutely admired her assertiveness.

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraAnd it paid dividends. The animation that the whole orchestra put into some of the sections was astonishing. The vivid violence of the fast strings during the Summer sequence was breathtaking. It was so exciting to hear – Mrs C and I looked at each other with “wow” expressions on our faces. Winter was also, I felt, a particularly stunning performance, with a chilling clarity and fantastic attack. Superb support came from the cellos, with Jessica Borroughs leading the team in a great performance; and Christopher Bucknall on the harpsichord was like a voice of reason treading his poised way through maniacal strings.

The final applause was amusing; the gentleman with the bouquet mistimed his appearance so that he almost bumped into Ms Gould in the offstage area; so the flowers (very nice by the way) were never going to be a surprise. When she returned to the stage and he followed her to present them to her, she did a wonderful “Really? For me? What a lovely surprise!” gesture worthy of the Trocks. A super evening of entertainment from the RPO and we walked home beaming with satisfaction.