After 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.
Then 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.
After 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.