Review – Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 1st February 2015

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra plays Russian musicWe welcomed back the Royal Philharmonic to Northampton this week, under the baton of Alexander Shelley and with Clio Gould leading. I always enjoy the RPO when Mr Shelley is conducting. They seem to have such a good mutual relationship, and he always brings the best out of them. Maybe it’s because Mr Shelley is obviously a man of the people, picking out individual members or sections of the orchestra for their own applause whilst standing in their midst, rather than loftily from the podium.

The RPO had lined up an evening of Russian greats for us to enjoy at last Sunday’s concert. They’re always lively and dynamic works. Such a programme was to be an encouraging start point for Lady Duncansby’s first foray into the world of classical concerts, encouraged to dip her toe in the musical pool (so to speak) by her butler William. She wasn’t too sure that she would enjoy the experience so we softened her up with a trip to Pizza Express before the concert. By the time we got to the theatre, we were all already quite mellow, having spent an entertaining two hours dipping dough balls in garlic butter, attacking Diavolo Romana pizzas, and spending ages desperately trying to catch the eye of the waitress so that we could order dessert. I expect the two bottles of house Trebbiano contributed to our state of mellowness.

Alexander ShelleyMy favourite Russian composer is Prokofiev, but he didn’t get a look-in. Instead, the orchestra started us off with a rousing overture, Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila. It’s a perfect start to this kind of concert as it gives the orchestra an early opportunity to show their mettle with all its lively and fast moving tunes and attacking style. It’s also relatively brief, so it wasn’t long to wait for the main event of the evening, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2, with our soloist Alessio Bax. It’s fascinating to watch the different styles of different soloists. Some pianists absolutely hurl their bodies at the Steinway, writhing with the passionate expression of each note. Others, like Mr Bax, sit there dignified, controlled, like a proper grown-up person, simply allowing the emotion and passion to come from his piano hands. I’m unsure if one is a better style than the other, but there’s no denying Mr Bax coaxes a huge amount of beauty out of the keyboard. But it wasn’t only our soloist who gave a great performance. Rachmaninov Piano 2 calls on the orchestra to produce some fireworks and they did not disappoint, with some vivid stabbing interjections from the strings, and massively hefty percussive drums. However, I’m going to be controversial here and say that in my opinion Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto is an excellent example of style over substance. It all feels very lush and romantic and stirring, but when you take away the frilly bits I don’t think there’s much left. Sometimes when the wrappings fall there’s nothing underneath at all. However I’ve no wish to detract from the sheer bravado of the performance. In the interval Lady D could not contain her excitement at what she had witnessed. It’s always nice when you discover an art form that you didn’t think you were going to like. I bet she becomes a timpanist in the next life.

After a half-time Pinot we were back for Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5. Nothing sounds scarier than the name Shostakovich – to me it suggests all sorts of harsh clashing, uncomplimentary sounds, enough to batter the most distinguished of eardrums. But given that he had to make his 5th symphony something of a Politburo Pleaser – if he wanted to continue his music career at least (or indeed, keep on living, as old Stalin definitely had it in for him) – then it should come as no surprise that this symphony is a box of tricks with more melodies than the Pied Piper, that apparently had its first Leningrad audience weeping in the aisles. I could achieve that when playing the recorder as a child. A good three-quarters of an hour of pure Soviet panache that again encourages the orchestra to give as good as they can, with amazing string work, lovely harp highlights, effective decorations by the celesta and some good old banging of the drums. A really enjoyable performance; enough to send you out into the cold winter air protected by a veritable Cossack hat of musical warmth. The next RPO concert is on Valentine’s night. It’s a lovely looking programme but to be honest I’d sooner be wining and dining on February 14th.

Alessio BaxPS. I don’t think everybody enjoyed the concert. About halfway through the Shostakovich, the first violins all turned over their next page of sheet music to reveal several more intensely inscribed staves with a helluva lot of notes on them. The gentleman two seats to Mrs Chrisparkle’s left let out a sigh and said something to the effect of oh no there’s another ten pages at least, to which his companions either side of him retorted with a simple and curt shut up. They’d obviously been practising. Clearly someone who would have preferred to stay in and watch the Super Bowl!

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