Another opportunity to welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to their spiritual East Midlands home, for a stirring concert of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruch. Our conductor was Mathieu Herzog, whom we haven’t seen before, but he’s a lively and charismatic presence on the podium. All decked out in a trendy, shiny frock coat with yellow beading, he’s one of those conductors who likes to throw himself into the music, arms reaching out in all directions to encourage every individual member of the orchestra to give their best. I think you can divide conductors into two kinds: those who never stand on tiptoe, and those who rarely don’t. M. Herzog definitely belongs in the latter category!
First on the agenda was Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture. This has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, but was written in 1807 for Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s 1804 tragedy Coriolan; not that it matters to today’s concertgoer. It’s a great start to a recital as it instantly arrests you with its bold and attacking style. You can really imagine old Ludwig van stabbing his baton at a petrified orchestra coaxing all those staccato beats out of the violins. Full of stops and starts, it’s impossible to listen to it without your head nodding up and down, furiously, in time to the rhythm. It showed off the orchestra’s fantastic strings to their best.
Next, we had the first of our two Brahms’ pieces, the Hungarian Dance No 6 in D Major. From stabbing, dramatic strings to gypsy swing strings in one fell swoop, you could almost smell the goulash. It was played with a great sense of fun and briefly transported you to some Czardas club in Budapest where your mind’s eye lingered on imaginary ladies in swirling skirts and gentlemen in knee-high boots. Pure escapism in three minutes, fifty seconds.
Taking us into the interval was the performance of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1 in G Minor. This is quite a favourite of the Royal Philharmonic, as we have seen them perform it in both 2009 and 2014, when Chloe Hanslip turned in an amazing performance. Our soloist this time was Francesca Dego, a statuesque vision in lemon, brandishing an antique violin; according to the programme, she uses two violins, a Francesco Ruggeri, dated 1697, and a Guarneri del Gesu from 1734 – which she presumably refers to as “the new one”. Her dramatic appearance reflects her dramatic performance, as she produced the most glorious tone from the instrument, both blending perfectly with the rest of the orchestra and also standing out with its own enhanced clarity. I’m always impressed when someone plays as complex a piece as this without any sheet music to hand. I loved how the three movements all blended seamlessly together, and it was an exciting, moving, and authoritative performance which the appreciative audience in the Derngate auditorium absolutely loved.
When we came back from the interval, there was a little surprise before the final piece. Managing Director of the RPO, James Williams, introduced us to Sir Peter Ellwood, who was given the orchestra’s highest accolade, that of Honorary Membership, in recognition of his support and work with the orchestra over the past twenty years. James presented the membership together with trumpeter Adam Wright. Sir Peter also happens to be Vice Lord-Lieutenant of Northamptonshire, so we wondered if he played a role in establishing the great connection between the orchestra and the Royal and Derngate. If so, well played sir!
The second part of the concert consisted of a performance of Brahms’ Symphony No 4. I love a Brahms Symphony. In fact, I remember, as a student, treating myself to a recording of each of the four symphonies, one a week, over the first part of a very difficult term – I’d buy one as a treat and a self-congratulation for getting through yet another tutorial. Being a (relatively) penniless student, I could only afford the Music For Pleasure recordings (remember them?) and they were by the Hallé Orchestra, under the baton of James Loughran. I thought they were fantastic. I confess that the first symphony is my ultimate favourite, but who’s going to turn up an opportunity to hear the fourth symphony performed live?
It was superb. I loved how the first movement shows off like a musical version of a question and answer session. Then when the second movement got going the pizzicato sequence was so impressive. It felt almost mournful but with a great resilience. And then the final two movements, which are a) lively and b) even livelier, were played with such gusto that it was hard for your brain to keep up with the music. The violinists were playing so vigorously that their arms were literally a blur. A wonderful performance, and a fitting end to a very exciting concert. The composers may have been Beethoven, Brahms and Bruch – three B’s – but it was an A+ evening. The RPO are next back in town on February 18th 2018 for an afternoon of Beethoven, Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn. Already looking forward to it!