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Review: Elgar's Enigma at the RLPO ****

January 19, 2018

After Sgt Pepper – complete with bells, whistles and confetti – at the arena last week, the RLPO is back to regular business in Hope Street.

And it was all symphonic systems go, with conductor Vasily Petrenko back in charge of a packed selection box of audience favourites and contemporary world premiere.

There was also a return for violinist/conductor Julian Rachlin, who was one of the Phil’s artists in residence not many moons ago.

Rachlin, nattily attired in tuxedo, bow tie and a scarlet ‘kerchief in his top pocket, plays a 300-year-old Stradivarius with intensity and muscular lyricism – and some achingly exquisite work at the top of the instrument’s register.

And there was plenty of opportunity to eke real sweetness from those high notes in Brahms’ concerto in D, with the Phil offering sturdy support.

It may be ‘veganuary’ for some, but this was a performance full of meaty music making and real bite, particularly in a boisterous final allegro.

So much bite in fact that there was a moment in the first movement where Rachlin himself threatened to be overwhelmed, albeit only for a couple of bars, but by the woodwind of all sections.

Talking of woodwind, a mention also for oboist Steven Hudson, who approached the adagio’s opening melody – later taken up by the soloist - with a lovely sinuousness, and who had a busy night, with a winding solo section in Stephen Pratt’s Symphonies of Time and Tide too.

Above: Vasily Petrenko - photo by Mark McNulty.  Top: Julian Rachlin © Julia Weseley

 

The composer has a long association with the Phil and was commissioned to write this new piece, receiving its world premiere, to mark his 70th birthday.

So many contemporary composers seem to love an evocation of space and other-worldliness, and this work unfolded in precisely that fashion, its tone set somewhere between Oliver Postgate and Captain Kirk.

Its spare, weightless horizons got progressively busier and weightier as it moved towards a cacophonous crescendo, while there was also a neat little Gershwin/jazz style hint of trumpet. All in all, something of a space oddity perhaps in an evening of big rounded melodies.

And so to Elgar. Russian Petrenko is one of the great current interpreters of English music, although Enigma Variations is almost too well-known and well-embedded in the nation’s musical psyche to be taken in too different a direction.

What the Phil audience got was an unashamedly romantic slice of England (it certainly made this Worcestershire girl feel homesick), vibrantly delivered at a robust pace and full of personality and colour, particularly in the vignettes for characters like Arthur Troyte Griffith and Dan the bulldog, brought vividly to life through every musical canine caper.

Nimrod meanwhile was solemn, warm and emotionally charged, and there was a powerful, and satisfyingly glorious and punchy finale.

If you missed Thursday night’s concert and can’t make Sunday, you can always tune in to the Classic FM Facebook page where the afternoon is being streamed live.

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