One of the good things about including the Northampton Bach Choir and the Boys and Men of All Saints Church Northampton in a Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concert at the Derngate is the fact that all their friends and families buy tickets so there is a virtually full house and always a fantastic atmosphere. Another is that they are extremely good at singing, but I mustn’t get ahead of myself.
This was the first time we’d seen the Royal Philharmonic since last summer, and we’ve definitely missed them. But I wasn’t entirely sure how much I would appreciate an evening of non-stop Mozart. Do you remember the criticism of him in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, that there are simply too many notes? That’s always struck a chord with me, if you’ll forgive the expression. However, the two pieces that made up the evening’s programme are so different in structure and content that you certainly don’t suffer a surfeit of Wolfgang.
The first part of the evening was devoted to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21, with the Romanian soloist Alexandra Dariescu. She was BBC Music Magazine’s Rising Star in 2011 and 2013’s “Woman of the Future” for Arts and Culture, and it’s not hard to work out why. From where we usually sit in the auditorium you can very clearly see the pianist’s hands on the keyboard, and I have to say the dexterity with which Miss Dariescu launches herself on the ivories is extraordinary. This is not a piece that necessarily calls for quite as much intense expression as some piano solos we have seen – Janina Fialkowska last year playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 comes to mind. What it does require is immense skill, incredible clarity and a great feeling for all those Mozartian scales and arpeggios, especially in the first and final movements. The Andante section in the middle is instantly recognisable as the theme to Elvira Madigan, an essential track on any 1960s easy listening album; I believe it’s even been used to flog woollen carpets in TV adverts in its time. It’s always rewarding to get the chance to hear a frequently heard piece of music in the context of its original setting, and with superb accompaniment from the orchestra Miss Dariescu made that lovely theme stand out. By the time we’d reached the final movement, I had become so mesmerised by her hands that I was struggling to concentrate. She could use that skill for hypnosis. It was a great performance that rightfully got a huge reception and during the interval the bar was buzzing with people discussing how skilfully she played it.
After our halftime Tempranillo we returned for the performance of Mozart’s Requiem. The Northampton Bach Choir and All Saints Choir had patiently sat in their seats for the duration of the piano concerto, but now it was their turn to shine. The conductor for the evening, Renato Balsadonna, is Chorus Director at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, and he was a great choice as his specialised ability to get the best out of the vocalists was really apparent. When we saw the Northampton Bach Choir at the Last Night of the Derngate Proms last June, we thought they were a bit ragged at times, and suspected that there wasn’t a lot of understanding between the conductor and the choir. Not a bit of it this time. All throughout, the choir were absolutely at the top of their game – clear, forceful, gentle, emotional, triumphant and all the attributes in between – and all timed perfectly together.
The four vocal soloists were also superb – soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn, Mezzo Kitty Whately, Tenor Anthony Gregory and Baritone David Stout – investing passion, authority and personality into this glorious music. Right from the start there was a feeling of instant attack from orchestra and choirs alike: a wall of sound that filled the theatre from top to bottom. There was a palpable sense of drama and power; surely this is the most stirring music that Mozart ever wrote? Excitement and strength from the Dies Irae and the Rex Tremendae; the beauty of the solo voices in the Tuba Mirum and Recordare; the haunting choral delicacy of the Lacrimosa; all building up to a stunning climactic Sanctus and Agnes Dei, and a superb final soprano solo by Miss Llewellyn in the Lux Aeterna, who I thought was magic throughout.
My only criticism of the evening as a whole was that, as it came in at about one hour and fifty minutes, it would have been really nice to have a third, short, piece to start the proceedings, just so that we could have been introduced to the orchestra by themselves first. A little five-minute overture would have given us the chance to settle down and appreciate the various sounds that the RPO so skilfully make and get to know the conductor’s style. By going straight into the concerto at the beginning of the evening, all eyes were (quite rightly) on Miss Dariescu; and with the massed choirs and stunning soloist singers for the Requiem, I thought the orchestra itself rather missed out on their share of the glory of the evening.
Nevertheless it was still a fantastic concert with orchestra, choirs and soloists all on tip-top form. It’s a privilege to have this kind of entertainment on our doorstep.