Circumstances have conspired against our attending the two most recent Royal Philharmonic concerts in Northampton, but on Sunday we were back with a vengeance to see a rousing performance of German and British music. Our conductor this time was Jac van Steen, new to us; an enthusiastic Dutchman who has the air of a kindly dentist; he seems extremely affable and wants you to be at your utmost ease, but if it calls for it, he’d be in for the kill like nobody’s business.
Our opening piece was the Prelude to Act One of Lohengrin by Wagner. I was expecting that stirring, arresting introductory brassy tune that puts you in mind of Valkyries and big fat sopranos – but no, that’s the Prelude to Act Three. Act One’s starts far more gently, with violin strings all a-quiver, but nevertheless building up to a major frenzy, perfectly representing the search for the Holy Grail which is what the programme notes said it was about. The orchestra were obviously champing at the bit and it was a very exciting and enjoyable start to the concert. Quiz question: what’s the difference between a prelude and an overture? No, I can’t work that one out either.
Next it was time to meet our soloist, Raphael Wallfisch, to perform Elgar’s Cello Concerto. We’d seen Julian Lloyd Webber perform the same piece nearly six years ago, but it’s hard to recall one performer’s interpretation of a piece after such a long time. Mr Wallfisch is another avuncular looking fellow, but with a rather serious, workmanlike attitude to his playing that belies the immense passion of the music he produces. Without any reference to any sheet music, he plunges his instrument into the deep gravitas of the opening movement, making his instrument take centre stage so that you watch the bow attacking the bridge of the cello rather than looking at the intent concentration on Mr Wallfisch’s face. In juxtaposition, Mr van Steen is sometimes up on his tippytoes coaxing all the emotion out of the strings, at other times thrusting himself downwards in the conclusion of a bar. There’s an electrically exciting sequence in the second movement (I think – I’m fairly unfamiliar with this piece and the boundaries between the movements were hard to identify) where Mr Wallfisch plays the cello with such vim and vigour that from our seat it looked as though he was whittling down some wood to fashion a set of cricket stumps. I’m not sure it was spiccato, more like old fashioned twiddling. Suffice to say it was an extraordinary performance and it was clear that everyone loved it.
After the interval, we returned for Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. We’d seen the RPO perform this before as well, a full seven years ago, conducted by Garry Walker. Then, as now, I can never remember what that special tune is that dominates the second movement. But as soon as it kicks in I remember why I love it so much. It has a sparse melancholy about it; a sense that happiness may be just around the corner but you’re never quite going to achieve it. And I love how Beethoven gives it just the one proper airing, building from a quiet start to an emotional fulfilment, but never ever going back to it, no matter how much you yearn to hear it again. Mr van Steen had to apply a reverse coaxing mechanism, where, rather than draw the passion out of the orchestra, he actively suppressed it, making those sad echo moments in the movement even softer than usual, creating a despairing exquisiteness to the whole thing. It was just sensational.
In many respects, the symphony is Beethoven’s Greatest Hits, with the brightness of the first movement, the playfulness of the third and the overwhelming victory of the final movement. The orchestra gave it a superb performance, and yes, excitable man in the Upper Circle Box, we all saw you on your feet conducting away to your heart’s content. We were blown away by the sheer vitality and force of the Royal Philharmonic’s performance. A great concert!