This isn’t the first concert by the Royal Philharmonic at the Royal and Derngate since we started to emerge tentatively out of our lockdown cocoons, but conductor Jamie Phillips’ warm welcome to us all made it feel like it. Unlike the last concert, Spotlight on Strings, which had a reduced sized and socially distanced orchestra and audience, this time the Derngate stage took the full whack of the complete cast of musicians and there’s no denying it’s a complete thrill to listen to that number of people playing together again.
The aforementioned Jamie Phillips is a trendy sort of chap, with matching red glasses and socks, whose appearance put me in mind of Trevor Horn during his Buggles phase. He cajoles the orchestra to feel their way into the music with encouraging facial expressions and has (literally) a spring in his step for every new movement. You can see him a little like a young father who’s incredibly proud of his musical progenies, making sure each member of the orchestra gets their chance to shine.
The programme for the concert of English, Norwegian and German music was an entertaining mix of the familiar and not-so-familiar. We started with Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No 1 Opus 46, opening with its glorious Morning Mood, then the sombre Death of Ase, the exotically beguiling Anitra’s Dance and finally the sinister and ultimately threatening In The Hall of the Mountain King. You got the feeling that each member of the orchestra knew this piece like the back of their hand, but even so the goosebumps began to rise with that last section, when the violins truly went into a frenzy of bowing. A perfect choice to start the evening’s entertainment.
Next, we had Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, Opus 64, with our soloist Irène Duval. Mlle Duval wears a serious demeanour in preparation for a piece, and it wasn’t long before she was treating Mendelssohn’s notes and phrases with admirable assertiveness. Her playing was – it goes without saying – astounding, but I would say she treated the first two movements with respect and determination, but let fly with the emotions in the final movement, where she made the vivacious and infectious tune truly swing. It was almost as though she had left the concert hall and we were now present at a huge celebration party. It was superbly enjoyable. It ended with an unexpected false coda; orchestra leader Tamas Andras got up to lead the orchestra off into the interval only to come face to face with Mlle Duval returning to perform an encore. “Oh you’ve come back!” he said in surprise, as his face grew redder and redder over the next five minutes, whilst she performed a piece I didn’t recognise. The admiration on the faces of some of the violinists at the quality of her performance was a joy to behold.
After the interval, we started with another piece that was not familiar to me – the Prelude from Delius’ Irmelin, his first opera. Not only had I not heard this piece, I hadn’t even heard of it. It’s delightful, wistful, fresh, and Spring-like, and the RPO’s performance was instantly appealing and beautiful.
Then came the main event, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, always a thrilling, stirring and emotional piece. However, I have to say, I felt that the pace of the performance was enormously fast. There are movements in Enigma that can withstand a super speedy performance, but there are others where you really need to relax to let the piece breathe, like a fine wine. There was also a pause after Nimrod that made it feel as though it had been split into a two movement concerto. It emphatically isn’t that; it’s a theme followed by 13 variations each of which is a portrait of a character, and by definition, I think each portrait should carry equal weight. For me, the performance lacked a little in the emotional department, the attention being focused on power and pizzazz. The performance came in at just about 30 minutes; that’s just my little quibble.
The RPO return on 6th February 2022 for another concert. We’ll be there – will you?
P. S. I’d really love it if we could go back to having the old-style programmes. Digital downloads put the onus on us to use lots of printer ink and the paper gets so crumpled during the performance that you can’t really use it as a souvenir! Please can we go back to the old programmes? Please??