It’s a welcome return to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal and Derngate for one of their increasingly traditional winter matinees! It was a very varied programme of British music, presented in front of a nicely full house – in part due to the presence of the Northampton Bach Choir, more of whom later. The stage jutted forward into the auditorium more than usual so as to accommodate the choir, but the RPO also filled the stage with more musicians than I’ve seen since before the pandemic – and it was wonderful to hear again the sound only a truly full orchestra can make.
Our conductor for the afternoon was Adrian Partington, a dignified and avuncular-looking chap, with a deceptively laid back and unhurried style that nevertheless galvanised the orchestra into a very exciting and dynamic performance.
First off, we heard William Walton’s Portsmouth Point Overture, an instantly arresting piece that delights and surprises. The orchestra took the opportunity to throw themselves into its irreverence and nautical naughtiness and it was a fantastic start to the proceedings.
After a spot of on-stage chair reallocations and repositioning, our next piece was Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op 47. It’s another very arresting, very tuneful piece that demands full commitment from its string leadership, and First Violinist Tamas Andras and Second Violinist David O’Leary (I think – it’s hard to identify individuals when they’re masked!) put in a terrific performance.
The nature of the programme meant that the interval came rather early in the afternoon, as those first two pieces barely last longer than twenty minutes together. However, that was probably unavoidable considering the main item in the programme that took up all of the second half – Sir Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace. Both the composer and the piece were new to me, although having read Sir Karl’s Wikipedia page I realise I must have heard a good deal of his music as he has collaborated with some of the most significant figures in modern music.
The Armed Man is an extraordinarily thrilling piece of music, taking its audience on a journey from the beginnings of war, faith to see us safely through war, to the bloody reality of war, its devastating aftermath and the realisation that Better is Peace. It was a superb performance by all the orchestra, and the choir, full of highlights. I loved the gripping percussion throughout, from the ominous war-drumming at the beginning, to the occasional surprise outburst of drums and percussion to signify gunfire. Our soprano soloist, Rebecca Bottone, was sensational in all her contributions to the piece, but perhaps most eloquently and effectively in the Angry Flames section, a sung poem by Hiroshima victim Togi Sankichi; I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word “smoke” given such power and menace.
Cellist Jonathan Ayling received a particularly enthusiastic round of applause for his performance in the Benedictus, wringing more pity and sorrow out of a melody than you ever thought possible. As for the Northampton Bach Choir, they gave it their all as they always do; their singing of the opening section, The Armed Man, was truly haunting as it built with its repetitions, and I particularly enjoyed their performance of the Charge! Section – exciting, dangerous, riveting. Sadly The Call to Prayers (Adhaan) section was omitted for some reason, I can only assume that the Muezzin, Naeem Mahmood, was unavailable.
A thunderously enjoyable performance of a dramatic and intense piece; we loved it, and would love to hear it again! Hopefully it won’t be long before the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra make a return visit to Northampton.
P. S. I repeat my plea from the last Royal Philharmonic performance back in October 2021. Please can we go back to having old style proper printed programmes? I hate these digital things!