Review – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Jack Liebeck Plays Sibelius, Derngate, Northampton, 23rd September 2012

Jack Liebeck plays SibeliusAutumn brings the start of this year’s subscription season of concerts at the Derngate in Northampton, and I’m delighted to say that Mrs Chrisparkle and I have tickets to all but one of them. So it’s the welcome return of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with a glorious threesome of Wagner, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky, a super balanced programme designed to warm us up, show off a fine soloist, and end with the full orchestra at its best.

Enrique BátizOur conductor was Enrique Bátiz, a splendidly formal gentleman of 70 experienced years, who takes his time to get to the podium, sombrely accepts the audience’s applause by resting his hand across his chest, never comes close to a smile, but with the manner of a slightly infirm old headmaster gets an absolutely cracking performance from the orchestra. His discography comprises 145 recordings, so he’s clearly the Cliff Richard of Latin American classical music.

The first piece was Wagner’s Flying Dutchman Overture, a stately and grand performance interspersed with some musical fireworks; a good opener that pleased the appreciative, if a bit small, Derngate audience. I thought the horns were particularly outstanding, but what do I know?

Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D Minor was next, and we awaited the return of Snr Bátiz with Jack Liebeck, winner of the 2010 Classical Brit award for Young British Performer of the Year. We’d seen him a couple of years ago on this same stage with this same orchestra performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. On that occasion I was very impressed with the sound that he made from his playing but felt he was a bit clinical and cold when it came to the emotion of the thing.

Jack LiebeckWell that’s all changed now. Mr Liebeck’s whole attitude seems much more enthusiastic. You can see it in his body language – lurching back and forth as though on a choppy sea, reaching on tiptoes to get the high notes, and really embracing the passion of the Sibelius with his every facial gesture. And of course his technical prowess is magnificent – those challenging cadenzas in particular were completely gripping and he never sacrifices the purity of the note for the bravura of the performance. I’d not heard this concerto before but I loved it and a CD of it is on its way to me from those nice people at Amazon. The orchestra put in a great performance too, including an intriguingly rasping playing of the horns, which Mrs C at first thought was a lone kazoo in the percussion. Sustained applause at the end of the concerto brought Mr Liebeck back for an encore. I didn’t recognise the piece but I know it was Bach because just before he played it, he exclaimed “Bach!” So there was no doubt.

RPOAfter the interval, where Mrs C and I met a nice old lady who came into town by herself to see the RPO concerts while her old husband seemed to prefer staying in and watching X-Factor, we returned for Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Again this was a new piece to me, and again I absolutely adored it, especially its second, third and fourth movements. The second movement centres on a very plaintive, moving theme which I thought the orchestra played beautifully. I can’t think how come I’ve not heard it before. The third movement consists of Tchaikovsky getting plucked, which is an overwhelming sensation when the entire string section is on the pizzicato. The final section is such a whirlwind of flourishes and excitement that it quite takes your breath away. You know that package from Amazon? A recording of this symphony is in there as well. The final applause was one of those occasions where it gradually gets warmer and warmer as the audience reflects on just how good all the elements of the evening have been. We were getting poor old Señor Bátiz to walk on and off the podium countless times to take the applause. Each time, it was still with his sincere but solemn expression, the heartfelt hand on the chest; until the last time, when he simply did that sharp cross-hands gesture which clearly is Mexican for “enough already”. He’s got a train to catch, thought Mrs C.

Many’s the time we’ve been to see these RPO concerts and inevitably we walk home exhilarated afterwards, talking of being lucky and privileged to enjoy them so close to home. This was no exception. Here’s to the next one.

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.