Review – Christoph Koenig conducts Beethoven and Elgar, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th April 2015

RPOA welcome return to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra visiting the hallowed halls of the Royal and Derngate, for this intense concert featuring Beethoven’s Third Symphony – the Eroica – and Elgar’s Violin Concerto with soloist Pinchas Zukerman. I say “intense” because they’re two meaty pieces, and without any side dishes like a light overture for starters or a quick entr’acte as a palate-cleanser, they took a lot of concentration and attention on the part of the audience in order to appreciate them at their fullest. They were also completely new to Mrs Chrisparkle and me vis-à-vis a concert experience. I have recordings of both somewhere in the old CD collection, but I have to say neither has ever really surfaced as a particular favourite.

Our conductor was Christoph Koenig, whom we have also never seen before, but he has a CV as a long as a baton, and he obviously inspires both confidence and respect from the orchestra. He’s quite a debonair chap, bounding on to the stage in a swish black Chairman Mao suit; and once he’s on the podium – for the opening Beethoven at least – he never stands still again. He’s the kind of conductor who throws his body heart and soul into the whole performance to encourage the very last iota of energy out of the orchestra. Cajoling here with the palm of his hand, triumphantly punching there with an upraised fist, nodding furiously as if to say “yes! yes!” to any section he might feel is being a little backward with coming forward. When he wants the orchestra to deliver the next part quietly he almost crouches down on his knees with a “shush!” before raising himself up again when it he wants it louder. He’s very entertaining to watch!

Christoph KoenigTalking of shush, there were a couple of guys a few rows in front of us who were really quite annoying. They whispered and fidgeted occasionally, which is ok in the noisy sequences but it’s nice to observe restraint during the quieter parts wherever possible. During one quiet moment in the Beethoven, one of them decided it was time to fumble with a rustly crinkly bag in order to extricate some difficult-to-find, bottom-of-the-bag sucky sweets. It completely drowned out one of Beethoven’s more delicate moments (and, let’s face it, there aren’t that many of them). They seemed totally ignorant of the fact they were in spitting distance of the back row of the first violins. You should have seen the daggers look the nearest violinist gave him. Mrs C expected him to pluck the catgut off his bow and strangle him with it. To no avail, he obviously didn’t notice, as later on, during the Elgar, he decided to start some kind of running commentary to his mate (or so it seemed to me) and once again the violinist gave him the death glare. So, please, dear classical music fans of Northampton, next time you go to see one of these concerts, would you mind shutting the ***k up? Thanks awfully.

So what of the Beethoven? According to the programme, the Eroica was inspired by his hero-worship of Napoleon; indeed it was originally to have been called the Bonaparte. But, as is often the case, your heroes have a tendency to let you down, and when Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor, Beethoven declared he would now be no more than a simple tyrant and ripped up the dedication page of his original manuscript in a hissy fit. It is a vast, stirring, strong and moving symphony, with extensive sequences given over to buzzing violins, but also room for a funeral march, a scherzo, and an electric final movement that started within a split second of the scherzo ending; no hanging around here, as if Mr Koenig had a bus to catch. I’d noticed that the usual layout of the orchestra had been changed slightly, with the violas and the cellos having swapped places. Mrs C wondered if that was because the first violin and the violas seem to have almost a duel between themselves at times, and by facing each other they could really act out their battle of the strings. If so, it worked well, because it was a highly dramatic performance. We also appreciated the warm and rousing contribution made by the French Horns – Congratulations to Laurence Davies, Samuel Jacobs and the rest of your squad.

Pinchas ZukermanAfter spending the interval observing how long the queue for the healthy frozen yogurts are, and appreciating how much more efficient it is to pre-order one’s Shiraz, we headed back inside for the performance of Elgar’s Violin Concerto. I was particularly looking forward to hearing Pinchas Zukerman because I had read a lot about him and wanted to hear him live for myself. Mr Zukerman is definitely somebody who lets the music do the talking. He only briefly acknowledges the audience before the performance; not, one feels, out of any sense of self-importance – far from it – more out of embarrassment at being on show – don’t look at me, please could you look at my antique violin instead. When he performs he is deadly serious, concentrating hard on what he is doing, observing his fellow musicians and Mr Koenig, who incidentally stepped back into a much less flamboyant role, conducting simply and effectively from the side but with no bravura antics to distract you from Mr Zukerman’s quiet determination.

Of course, it goes without saying that technically he’s extraordinary; it was a very strong and vibrant performance. He seems to have a way of jabbing deep into the violin to scour the instrument for maximum sound and effect. Watching and listening to him was a very satisfying experience, but a challenging one. Neither of us found it an “easy” piece of music; it was demanding, serious, and without any “laughs”, if you get my drift. Despite Elgar’s own opinion that it was a highly emotional piece, for me it appealed more to the cerebral than the emotional. Maybe that is due to Mr Zukerman’s intense interpretation. But there was no doubting the audience’s appreciation, and when it was over Mr Zukerman received three “curtain calls”, much to his unassuming discomfort.

So, overall an intense and challenging evening of appreciating musical excellence. As always, you come away with a sense of privilege to be able to witness such mastery. It’s good to be confronted by something different every so often, simply to see how you react to new experiences. Rest assured, the Royal Philharmonic never let you down. Looking forward to our next concert in May!

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