THE ROYAL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA AT THE CORN EXCHANGE
The classical music series brought two new and unexpected experiences to your reviewer. I have never heard or seen the young Georgian soloist Mariam Batsashvili play, nor have I ever sat in the Corn Exchange balcony. Both brought pleasure and surprise in equal measure.
The programme was a showcase for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of its 39 year-old conductor Alexander Shelley. It began with Kodály’s Dances of Galánta written in the early 1930s. This homage to the Gypsy music of the Hungarian’s homeland (though now in Slovakia) made one wish for the next ticket to Galánta. It is a wonderfully bright and breezy piece full of off-beat syncopated rhythms redolent of central Europe. The composer along with his friend Bartok, was an early ethno-musicologist who scoured the byways of the Habsburg Empire to note down the tunes and instruments of the indigenous folk. The work is a joyous celebration of that passion and the RPO filled the cavernous space of the Corn Exchange with the richest palette of sound – not least a starring role for the clarinet. The dances could have been written by a Budapest version of Leonard Bernstein – there is the same energy, toe-tapping melody, soaring love tunes and brash whirls – this really is music to dance to (a hard thing to do in the middle of row FF in the Corn Exchange balcony).
Our seats in the gods were, for me, actually far better than the flat, un-raked rows in the stalls. Up in the balcony one could see the whole orchestra and the sound was much richer, deeper and full than I have heard from closer up. It was also a great place to watch the soloist Batsashvili in Liszt’s grandiose first piano concerto. Dressed in a plain dark suit, she ambled on to the stage without ceremony – a slight bow of the head and off she went into the passionate world of mid-19th century romanticism. Her shoulder-length hair and slim frame reminded me of drawings of Chopin and she was certainly no slouch on the keyboard. Liszt’s short but densely packed concerto must be a devil to play with its endless trills, breathless runs and crashing chords. Batsashvili plays with grace, unshowy style and clearly a deep understanding of the composer’s intentions. It was a gripping and utterly satisfying reading of this short (20 minutes) work. From the opening 7-note motif (constantly being repeated and elaborated upon), to the delicate adagio, triangle-led scherzo and the full Monty finale, Batsashvili and the RPO were in perfect synch. She drew the first half to a close with a charming encore – a delicate minuet. She stood, gave a courteous bow and she was off.
Earlier between the first and second pieces, the conductor Shelley took up a mic and talked about the works being played. It was a very nice touch – he is an amiable young man – and something maybe that should be done at every concert. He joked that the final work Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony was rarely played. The audience didn’t quite get it and had to be reminded by him that this was one of the most popular works in the classical repertoire. A deeply personal work full of wonderful Russian melodies, anguished calls of Fate, sad nostalgia and a clear struggle against the dark recesses of a suicidal mind – the symphony is rightly up there in the classical pantheon. Oddly though, Shelley seemed to have missed some of the point. His languid pacing of the first three movements seemed to diminish the awesome power of Tchaikovsky’s vision. Beautifully played as one might expect from the RPO, the work never seemed to come alive under the steady beat of the conductor’s hand or baton (he uses both with a flourish). These misgivings evaporated in the final movement – an astonishing, nay ravishing, hymn to life with mountainous crescendos, spine-tingling climaxes and the ever-present dark side of the soul. It was a finale set to bring down the roof – and from row FF in the balcony, that was closer than usual.