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Review: Virtuoso Violin at Philharmonic Hall ****1/2

Sometimes, as the cast of Hair would tell you, you’ve just got to let the sunshine in – and this Thursday night programme at the Phil did just that.

With Rossini’s popular and lively Semiramide overture, Paganini’s dazzling First Violin Concerto, and the sunlight uplands of Dvorak’s charming Czech-infused Eighth Symphony, there was no excuse to leave the Philharmonic Hall with a long face.

One person who radiates enjoyment is Taiwanese-Australian virtuoso Ray Chen, returning to the Phil for the first time since 2017 and delivering an ebullient and dashing performance of Paganini’s tricksy concerto.

Paganini was one of the 19th century superstar performers and Chen, still just 30, is one of the big personalities of the 21st century stage – so I imagine Niccolo would have appreciated his playing as much as the Phil audience certain did.

Chen plays the 1715 ‘Joachim’ Stradivarius – named after another stellar 19th century violin virtuoso (and friend of Brahms) Joseph Joachim, and in the young violinist's hands the 300-year-old instrument sings with a glorious voice.

The extended bright orchestral start gave the Phil, under conductor Michele Mariotti’s deftly sympathetic baton, a chance to shine before Chen swept in with a brilliance of tone, a real sweetness and colour even at the dog whistle end of the instrument’s register.

An exhilarating allegro, complete with a show-offy cadenza, was followed by an adagio – with its Don Giovanni-like opening chords - which showcased a lovely lilting orchestral accompaniment.

The rondo found Chen dancing daintily over the top of the orchestra, before launching in to a deliciously flamboyant finale.

How do you follow Paganini? In Chen's case, it was with warm words for Liverpool and an encore of Waltzing Matilda, deconstructed and reconstructed in beautifully wistful fashion.

Dvorak dominated the second half, his Eighth Symphony a work full of big, joyous, uplifting melodies, played with brightness by the Phil, the swell of strings juxtaposed nicely by the birdsong voice of the woodwind which gave several players the chance for solos.

A swinging, swaying Slavonic dance allegretto brought with in an exaggerated one beat, and the allegro finale was a big splashy colourful caper that came to a crazy, whirlwind end in Technicolor Hollywood style.

They do it all over again this lunchtime.

Photo by Julian Hargreaves

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