Once again it is a delight to welcome the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to Northampton, and good to see that there plenty of avid music lovers in attendance. Fortunately the snow had all but melted away so it was an easy trek into town for an audio feast of Brahms, Chopin and Beethoven.
Our conductor was Fabien Gabel, whom we have not seen here before. Very dashing and smart, he’s the kind of conductor who throws himself whole-heartedly into cajoling every section of the orchestra to outperform themselves on an individual basis. A lively bit comes along and he’s flapping around frenziedly – then comes a soft bit and he’s beckoning out gently with one hand in an encouraging way as if to part the musician with their last Rolo. Despite all this he’s not over-the-top in his movement, he just obviously enjoys his job and isn’t afraid to show it. I found him equally entertaining to watch as any of members of the orchestra.
The first piece was Brahms’ Tragic Overture. Mrs Chrisparkle remarked that she’s experienced a few of those. The programme notes advised that it met a lukewarm reception on its first performance, has been slow to gain a regular place in the repertoire, and performances remain relatively scarce to this day. Not having heard it before, you couldn’t blame us for wondering if it was going to be a bit rubbish. We had no need to worry. It was lush and stately and full of beautiful expression from the strings and there was also some really good oomph from the horns. Not tragic at all, we agreed.
Having built up a soothing air of warm serenity with the Brahms, it was time to move on to Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F Minor. I’d caught sight earlier of the Steinway, lurking at the back of the stage where you would normally expect to see the percussion. Therefore it had to be wheeled into position before the arrival of our soloist Janina Fialkowska. What a performance. First violins had to move this way, second violins moved that way, cellos hovered perilously close to the stage edge. Two dinner-jacketed guys grabbed hold of the piano and went for the gap. They reversed it in and out of place several times, in an attempt to find the optimum position. They were worse than me trying to reverse-park the Golf. Meanwhile, the first violins were chatting at one corner of the stage, the cellos were chatting at the other end; one tall musician (I can’t remember what instrument he was playing) stood right at the front of the stage looking out and beaming into the audience as if he were trying to find his relatives. It all seemed to take ages. Honestly, how to kill an atmosphere! The whole procedure looked so amateurish and unplanned. We’ve seen RPO concerts with piano soloists on three separate occasions but I can’t remember such a cumbersome arrangement.
Anyway, eventually everything was in place and we could continue. M. Gabel brought Ms Fialkowska onto the stage with a palpable air of expectation. It was all worth the wait. Chopin’s 2nd piano concerto is a stunning piece, combining delicacy and grandiosity, sorrow and folky jollity. In that first movement, Janina Fialkowska’s hands fly across the keyboard at an incredible speed, somehow managing to catch all the right notes in their path as they go. One wonders how the brain can instruct the hands to go to all those places with exactly the right sequence, speed and expression. That’s why I gave up at Grade VI. For the second movement, a seriousness descends and Ms Fialkowska played the most beautiful, deceptively simple, nocturne – plaintive and resonant, full of feeling and emotion; we loved it. Straight into the third movement and she gathers all the liveliness back and goes for broke, her hands shimmering over the keys almost as much as her black sparkly top glittered under the spotlights. An absolutely stonking good performance. The orchestra gave it great support too, including a stunning sequence towards the end where the strings are played with the wood part of the bow rather than the hair. The whole performance understandably caused the Derngate to erupt with approval. As Ms Fialkowska came out for her second bow, one of the theatre staff hovered behind her with a very nice looking bouquet. Fatally, he hesitated. He couldn’t tell when to make his move. She went to leave the stage. He bounded in with the bouquet. Flowers and soloist were successfully united and all was well that ended well; but we were a bit worried for him. Next time you have a bouquet to present to a soloist, imagine you’re trying to cross a road in Vietnam. Don’t look, just stride out and do it.
After a scrummy Chenin Blanc and the chance to get our breath back after that wonderful performance, we returned to the auditorium for Beethoven’s 6th symphony. The Pastoral symphony is full of recognisable tunes but I can never quite place them before I hear it. I don’t think I was the only one with that problem, because as soon as it started you could hear a tiny wave of breathy recognitions around the room as if to say “oh yes, THAT one.” It was another great performance. M. Gabel got right into it and dug all sorts of superlatives out of the orchestra. The cellos were having a particularly good time, exchanging knowing looks and smiles as it progressed. The music flowed over us like a soothing honey and lemon drink. It’s easy to tell the break from the first to the second movement and from the second to the third (cue the musical birdsong); but the third, fourth and fifth movements all run into each other so that when it finishes it’s a bit of a shock. My little pastoral idyll had come to an end.
Even then it wasn’t all over, as we got a little burst of Mozart as an encore, which was a very nice touch. The evening was superb and we really enjoyed it. Not quite as much, perhaps, as the cellists, who all kissed and hugged at the end, as if wrapping up a self-help group meeting. Three cheers for the RPO and their wonderful Sunday night concerts here at the Derngate; there’s no surer way of ending the weekend both relaxed and energised.