Review – Michael Petrov Performs Tchaikovsky, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th February 2018

Michael Petrov Performs TchaikovskyI reckon that attending live performances is habit-forming and after a while, if you see enough, you can end up on auto-pilot. That’s the reason that Mrs Chrisparkle and I kept checking our tickets on Sunday to ensure that this visit of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra really was scheduled for 3pm and not the usual 7.30pm. It just didn’t quite feel right to be there in the afternoon! There’s no doubt, however, that the matinee performance enabled several more children to attend the concert which is a great thing, especially as this was by no means a children’s programme – there were four, perfectly meaty, substantial and adult pieces of classical music to enjoy, and I hope any new youthful concertgoers found it as exciting and rewarding as we did.

Rory MacdonaldOur conductor for this concert was Rory Macdonald, whom we’ve seen just once before, when Natalie Clein performed Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B Minor three years ago. He still doesn’t seem to have aged at all, and I’m more than ever sure that he has a grand selfie mouldering in his attic somewhere. He’s an exuberant conductor, one who likes to reach out on tippytoes to get the maximum out of his musicians. With his sleek black hair and formal attire, I couldn’t get the vision of Mary Poppins’ cartoon penguins out of my head. But he does a great job, so far be it from me to take the mickey.

Our first piece was Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. What a grand way to start a concert, with its compelling tunes and robust orchestration. It’s a superbly muscular and self-confident piece of music – everything an overture should be – and the orchestra rose to the challenge magnificently. I also appreciated the slightly pacier tempo which made its strength and power stand out. A great start.

Next we had two pieces of music that were new to me. Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34 by Edvard Grieg. I love Grieg’s music and it was a treat to discover something new by him. All the woodwind and percussion left the stage so that we only had the string players – I say “only”, but the lush sound they produced was sensational for these two pure and sincere reflective pieces. There’s nothing comfortable about the Elegiac Melodies, and I found them strangely disconcerting; but I really loved the performance.

After this, there was some general reorganisation as the rest of the orchestra returned and a platform was provided, centre stage, for our soloist, the cellist Michael Petrov. Amongst all the black evening dresses of the ladies of the orchestra and the formal suits of the men, Mr Petrov strode on to the stage in a white shirt not tucked in at the waist, no collar, no jacket, no tie, but with a calm and creative aura about him. He looked like a benign dentist – the sort who doesn’t complain at you if he suspects you haven’t been cleaning your teeth properly.

Michael PetrovMr Petrov was there to play Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op 33. This was another piece I’d never heard before and I was instantly taken by it. Tchaikovsky takes a relatively simple theme and wraps it around his little finger with seven variations and an astonishing cadenza from Mr Petrov where you could hear a pin drop, so alert were the audience to the passionate tones he produced from his 1846 J B Vuillaume cello – proving that old is often best. The Variations are a great vehicle to show off a bravura performance and Mr Petrov did that with apparently effortless ease. He brought out the humour of some of the cheekier variations and the solemnity of the andante sections. No sheet music, no grand gestures; just a thoughtful and disciplined performance that held the audience spellbound. We absolutely loved it – and now I need to find a decent recording of this piece for my own music library.

This performance was of the Fitzenhagen arrangement of the Variations; Fitzenhagen was the principal cellist with the Orchestra of the Imperial Russian Music Society in Moscow, to whom Tchaikovsky had dedicated the work, but then who chopped and changed the Variations around, much to the annoyance of Tchaikovsky. But maybe Fitzenhagen knew what he was doing, because it’s such an enjoyable mini-concerto, and it’s usually his version that gets performed.

RPO3-300x200After the interval we returned for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 4 in A Major, Op 40, better known as the Italian Symphony. As soon as its happy and playful major theme strikes up in the first movement, you’re transported away to sunny climates and a lovely Mediterranean lifestyle. Under Mr Macdonald’s enthusiastic direction, the orchestra brought us all the joy of the first movement, then to change dramatically to the crestfallen sound of the second movement, with its connotations of funereal respect, the stately minuet of the third movement and the raucous scampering of the saltarello dance of the fourth. It was all performed with amazing vigour and energy and had the audience on the edge of its seat with excitement at the end.

A fantastic concert that introduced me to some riveting new pieces and a super soloist. And it was all over by teatime! The next classical offering from the Royal Philharmonic will be in April, with a varied programme of Czech, Polish and Finnish music. Can’t wait!

Review – Natalie Clein Performs Dvořák, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 31st May 2015

Natalie Clein Performs DvorakAlways a pleasure to welcome the Royal Philharmonic to Northampton, this time for a varied programme of classical delights featuring cellist supreme, Natalie Clein. This is not the first time Miss Clein has been the soloist in an RPO concert here. In fact, five years ago, she played the self-same Cello Concerto in B Minor for us in her own inimitable style. So, either she only knows how to play the one song (probably unlikely) or she knows what the public wants and how to keep with a winning streak.

Rory MacdonaldOur conductor for this performance was Rory Macdonald. We’ve not seen Mr Macdonald before and it’s always fascinating to observe different conductors’ styles and approaches to their work. Either Mr Macdonald has a picture mouldering in an attic, or he is incredibly young. He reminded me of what Harry Potter’s younger brother might look like. I’ve checked – he’s 34. I bet he gets asked for ID in pubs all the time. He’s an enthusiastic but elegant conductor – when he gets into the vibe he gains extra emphasis by going up on tippy-toes, rather like the Eurovision cartoon conductor of 1992, only more soberly dressed.

Eurovision conductorOur starter for ten on this concert was to go straight into the Dvořák. Both Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt that, with such an impactful, dominant and significant piece, we could have perhaps done with starting with a light overture, some kind of warm up piece to get our juices flowing and our ears attuned to the magic of the orchestra alone. Starting with the Dvořák was like going straight into a Chateaubriand without having a little smoked salmon first.

Natalie CleinThere’s no denying Natalie Clein’s complete mastery of her instrument. Centre stage, she looks unassuming, but as soon as she gets going it’s like she takes on a new existence. Every fibre of her body gets wrapped up in the cello; watching them together it’s like a high octane marriage. They can be loving and sensitive together some of the time, at other moments it’s stormy and tempestuous. The immense depth of sound she gets out of her “Simpson” Guadagnini cello (dating from 1777 would you believe) is extraordinary. Dvořák’s Cello Concerto is a most invigorating piece, with plenty of opportunities for the orchestra to shine as well as the soloist, and we all went into the interval happy in the knowledge that we’d witnessed something special.

After our halftime Shiraz’s, we ventured back for Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. This is a charming little collection of five short pieces, each representing a different aspect of the world of fairy tales – almost like a miniature classical version of Into The Woods. I’m not sure I’ve heard the Mother Goose suite as a whole before, but I definitely recognised a theme from Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte in that opening section about Sleeping Beauty. I know the pavane wellBolero album because it was on my 1970s album of Ravel’s Bolero, which, as you can see from the cover, was all about the music, ahem; can’t think what drove the eleven year old me to buy it. What’s especially rewarding about this suite, along with its light-hearted effervescence and tuneful variety, is that it seems to use every conceivable instrument in the orchestra, so you get to enjoy such esoteric delights as the harp and the celeste as well as the usual brass and strings.

That piece acted as a palate cleansing sorbet before the final item – Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. This allowed Mr Macdonald to get thoroughly swept off his feet again as he cajoled the orchestra through its lively sections (especially the Infernal dance of King Kashchei) before culminating in its grand finale. The version performed was the second suite dating from 1919, but the original version, from 1910, marked Stravinsky’s first collaboration with Diaghilev at the Ballets Russes, which made the composer an overnight sensation and international celebrity. The Stravinsky of that era was just perfect for combining dramatic accompaniment to fine dance with musical quality in its own right. The RPO gave this a magnificent, rousing performance which went down hugely with the appreciative audience.

It was all over by 9.15pm so there was a slight feeling of being short-changed time-wise, particularly as the first half really called out for a short introductory piece before the Dvořák, which would not only have got us warmed up for Natalie Clein but also extended the evening by just ten minutes or so. There are plenty of wonderful overtures out there – and that’s precisely what they’re meant to do – open the evening. Nevertheless it was still a marvellously rewarding concert, with a great soloist and the RPO on fine form. Look forward to the next one!