It’s always a pleasure to welcome the Royal Philharmonic to our humble little town, and for this performance of Classical Masterpieces the Derngate auditorium was more or less full to the brim. Our conductor was Nicholas Collon, new to us, and he reminded me of… well, me actually, at something of an earlier age. It wasn’t his shiny suit – I don’t think I ever went down that line – but it was the hair that did it – fair, and scruffy, and lots of it. All I can say is, watch out Mr Collon, greyness is just around the corner.
You could tell he was enjoying the proceedings, though; constantly smiling, striking a relaxed pose, making sure all the different sections of the orchestra knew where they were and checking they were alright, a bit like a musical janitor. The orchestra had had something of a jiggle around – the violas and the cellos had swapped their usual places, but I guess as long as they knew what they were playing it shouldn’t be a problem. Mr Collon’s enthusiasm certainly caught light with the orchestra and with the audience who, after almost two hours of wonderful entertainment, responded with a very warm final round of applause.
But I’ve ended before I’ve started. First on the menu was a performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. According to the programme notes he didn’t finish quite a few symphonies, so it’s a bit of a misnomer always to refer to his Symphony No 8 in that way. Still, there are definitely only two movements, which is one movement short of a picnic – symphonically speaking. It’s a very beautiful, warm, welcoming piece of music – a good choice to start off a varied evening of masterpieces. The orchestra attained a level of mellowness and mellifluousness that was jolly rewarding to listen to. All apart from the mobile phone that went off during the performance. It wasn’t one of those subtle, space age sounds – it was set to the old-fashioned 1960s “ring-ring” setting. Bit of a shame, that. I’m sure that’s not how Schubert would have chosen to finish it.
Next we had Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1 in G Minor, with Chloe Hanslip as the soloist, on her “Guarneri del Gesu” 1737 violin. Not only is it a privilege to be able to watch and listen to such a gifted violinist but also to hear an instrument that is now 277 years old is just incredible. Ms Hanslip appeared, bright and enthusiastic, in a beautiful black and silver dress that showed her off very nicely indeed. She too has an endearing connection with the audience and the rest of the orchestra, frequently nodding around to make sure everyone’s enjoying themselves.
As soon as she played her first few notes, there emerged that fantastic resonance of the characterful violin – speaking its own language of music rather than just merely playing notes. It sent a shiver down my spine. Ms Hanslip gave a tremendous performance, absolutely feeling the vibe right from the start. She played with verve and panache, and indeed, an incredible feat of memory to get all those notes in her brain in the right order without a whiff of a piece of sheet music. The orchestra gave her superb support, and when it was all over you had that sense of having witnessed something really special. When Ms Hanslip came back for her second well-earned round of applause, there was the customary bouquet of flowers waiting in the wings for her, which was brought on by a young chap in a Royal and Derngate uniform, who insisted on planting a huge sucker kiss on her as reward for the embarrassment of being on stage. I don’t blame him.
After a pleasantly Merlot-filled interval, we returned for one of the all-time favourites in the classical world, Elgar’s Enigma Variations. We’d seen the RPO perform this before, and they had a lot to live up to. It’s such a magnificent work that can rend you apart with its emotions as it takes you on a wandering path past Elgar’s colleagues, friends and loved ones, stopping to share memories and point out foibles. No piece of music reflects love and friendship quite like the Enigma. Stand-out variations for me were WMB which was full of enthusiasm and humour, and Troyte, massively stirring and bold. I always look forward to Nimrod and have to steel myself lest it cause a little tear; but this time it didn’t quite move me as much as usual – it felt a little too romantic and not quite heroic enough for me. And my other favourite movement – the final one, EDU – sounded a little rushed and sloppy to me at the beginning, before everyone caught up with themselves and launched into that incredible melody. But these are minor quibbles – the whole evening was superb entertainment as always. Next up in this series – John Williams playing Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez with the RPO. Can’t wait!