Review – Spanish Fiesta, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 5th February 2012

Spanish FiestaFirst visit by the RPO to the Derngate in 2012 for the much awaited Spanish Fiesta, which includes four crowd-pleasing familiar pieces and a first performance. So it was with great anticipation that we took our seats.

Simon WrightThe conductor this time was Simon Wright, a relaxed, avuncular looking man, who looks as though he enjoys the après-concert to the full. I felt that the first piece, Bizet’s Carmen Suite No 1, could have done with just a tad more attack. Rather reflecting the conductor’s appearance, it luxuriated in the soft and the stately elements of the music, bringing out its tunefulness very well – the Carmen suite is basically a medley of songs from the world’s best musical after all – but I didn’t get the spine shiver I would normally like from Les dragons d’alcala entr’acte music, and perhaps the Séguidille lacked some emotion. All was put right though for the Toreadors tune, which went like the clappers and never fails to bring a smile to the face and an air-baton to the hand.

Then we had Fauré’s Pavane. This beautiful piece was perfectly played and was as comforting as nestling in a high tog duvet with a bowl of whipped cream. It clearly suited Simon Wright’s laid back style. Measured and resonant; simply gorgeous.

Stephen GossThen we came to our première. Stephen Goss’ Guitar Concerto was commissioned by the soloist Graham Roberts. Messrs Goss and Roberts go back a long way and have played together in the Tetra Guitar Quartet for over twenty years, so they should have a pretty good understanding of how to get the best out of each other. The first movement is described as “bold and bright”; let’s take that first. It starts stunningly; and there’s no doubting Mr Roberts’ mastery of the guitar – although I was expecting an acoustic Spanish guitar rather than the mellow electronic guitar sound we got. It’s also a fantastic piece for the percussion who gave it plenty of welly. As the first movement progresses it loses some of that electronic flamenco feel and becomes more lyrical, but possibly not to its advantage. Mrs Chrisparkle thought – perhaps a little unkindly – that there was an element of lift music about it. I must say it put me in mind of a film score; but I guess the point is we both felt it was rather “background” music rather than something that commanded one’s attention.

The second movement is Adagio sostenuto, an homage to Elgar. The programme notes explain that Graham Roberts asked Stephen Goss to come up with a British alternative to the slow movement to Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto de Aranjuez, and that the result is something very Elgarian in mood. He’s not kidding. As you get into that second movement it screams Nimrod at you. Possibly a little too much for me, as I felt it stopped being an homage and became more like a derivative influence. The kind part of me tells you it was splendidly played and a clever, tuneful doff of the cap to Elgar; and the unkind part of me tells you I would have preferred to have stayed at home with my CD of the Enigma Variations. The truth is somewhere between the two.

The finale, allegro molto, was, we both agreed, the most rewarding of the three movements, with fantastic Cuban rhythms and more wonderful contributions from the percussion. It was full of attack and very tuneful. However, during the interval both Mrs C and I agreed that – just maybe – the concerto would have worked slightly better as a purely symphonic piece. But then, what do we know?

Graham RobertsAfter the interval, Graham Roberts was back to give us his Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto. Acoustic Spanish guitar this time, perhaps? No, it was a distinctly plugged version. In both his performances Mr Roberts had struggled a bit with the tuning – he actually told us that the dressing room was too cold for the strings to warm up – and whereas I didn’t think that affected his playing of the Goss, I did feel there was some detriment to the Rodrigo, particularly in the third movement where I thought he was distinctly off a couple of times. Additionally, I also felt in the first movement, the orchestra was a little loud for the guitar – or the guitar was too soft for the orchestra. Just a couple of times you couldn’t quite hear where Rodrigo was going with it. But no real worries; it is of course a mellifluously lovely piece of music and it’s really delightful to let it waft over you, transporting you to your own private Spanish heaven; and in that super second movement, Graham Roberts teased some extraordinary delicacies out of those strings.

Top of the bill, so to speak, and because you really can’t play anything after it, we were treated to a performance of Ravel’s Bolero. We saw the RPO perform this here two years ago and it was stunning. Again, it was a superb performance, and particular commendations have to go to the man on the snare drum. He starts the whole thing off and has to keep going right to the bitter end – an extraordinary feat I think. He was great. All the woodwind too, especially the flute and clarinet, were particularly splendid in that performance and made those early moments of the piece really sweet and exotic. When the strings kicked in they were majestic too. It seems a shame to mention the celeste, but unfortunately it squeaked a little painfully alongside the piccolos; not quite sure what went wrong there. But the whole thing built to a magnificent climax and ended as dramatically as you could imagine.

Great to see a really packed house enjoy such an enjoyable programme of music, especially the combination of the familiar with the new. It wasn’t perfect, but it was played by humans, and humans aren’t perfect. Moreover, it was played with huge skill and commitment, and, as ever, we walked home grateful for the privilege of having a theatre like the Derngate with an orchestra like the RPO on our doorstep.

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