Review – Jan Mráček Performs Mendelssohn, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th June 2017

RPO June 17It’s always a pleasure to welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to Northampton – this time, on the hottest day of the year so far; as the concert began we were still basking in 29° sunshine outside so very wisely the gentlemen of the orchestra adopted shirt sleeve order – otherwise they would have found it unbearable on stage.

Martyn BrabbinsOur conductor – new to us – was Martyn Brabbins, whose credits include 120 recordings on CD and who is currently the Music Director of the English National Opera. He’s an avuncular looking chap, a little like Great Uncle Bulgaria’s younger brother, who’s not averse to leaning back on his tippy-toes and then stabbing his baton at full force into the general vicinity of the orchestra if that’s what it takes to get the best out of them.

Two harpistsOur opening piece was Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-mid d’un faune, a beautifully gentle way to start the evening. We were presented with the stirring sight and sound of not one but two harps and harpists, Suzy Willison-Kawalec (who taught my Goddaughter to play the harp) and Emma Ramsdale. You can really hear the difference when two harps are playing side by side, the music is so much more powerful, even when it’s delicate. The orchestra really brought out the fragility of this piece and it was a stunning opener. I was also struck by how similar its first few bars are to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Debussy predated it by almost twenty years.

Jan MracekFor our next piece, we welcomed our soloist, Jan Mráček, for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. You know you are getting older when the soloists are getting younger, and pan Mráček clocks in at 25 years old but with the gravitas of a man much older. He’s already won some kind of award by being the only person in a jacket (poor him) and as soon as he plunged himself into the first movement, we knew we were in for a treat. He played the Mendelssohn with an elegant seriousness but tempered with true enjoyment. He gave it fantastic expression and we were both absolutely wowed by his performance; all from memory, with amazing control and superb finesse. There’s a section where (as it seems to me, in my layman’s terms) the bow has to bounce lightly over all the strings in sequence, and then bounce back, and then back again and back again across the bridge and so on and all that time there wasn’t one moment where the tone suffered – none of those little squeaking or clattering noises you sometimes hear when the playing gets intense, it was absolutely precision perfect. I don’t know how he does it. I read that pan Mráček plays a violin made in Milan in 1758; it may well be that the craftsmanship of the centuries adds to the warmth and passion of his performance.

RPOAfter the interval we welcomed back the orchestra – still with two harps – for Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Written at a time when Shostakovich was persona non-grata with the Stalin government, he was literally composing to save his life – and the power of the symphony really reflects this. Too complex for someone like me to give it any kind of narrative, the Fifth Symphony is full of superb tunes and dramatic explosions, and the whole orchestra gave it so much life and zest. Outstanding for me was a beautiful pizzicato sequence and again the way the harps blended with the celeste was just plain gorgeous.

It wasn’t the largest audience I’ve seen at the Derngate for one of these RPO concerts, but it was certainly an appreciative one as the orchestra gave us a memorable night of exquisite performances. They’re back on 16th July with something a little lighter – a Film Music Gala. Why not come and join us?!

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!