Category Archives: Review

Review: RLPO and Alexander Shelley in Strauss, Brahms and Elgar

While I was in an thus-far unnamed northern city on my NotARealBusinessTrip, I took the opportunity of going to a concert given by the local orchestra, known only by the secretive title of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (I wonder where they’re based?). The choice of concerts was excellent – Tiny Thing Helseth (as she is commonly known among my musical friends – poor girl, she can’t help having a Norwegian name that sounds funny in English, and she really is a super musician) or some turn of the century romantic orchestral masterpieces. I opted for glorious technicolour over dazzling brass, and went for the Strauss, Brahms and Elgar – and it was certainly worth a lot more than the extraordinarily cheap student tickets (seven pounds a pop, any students out there who might be travelling up north).

First on the programme was Strauss’ tone poem Don Juan (here if you want to listen). Composed in 1888, when the composer was just 24, it was exceedingly popular from its first performance onwards, receiving at least 600 performances in just 24 years. It isn’t quite a tone poem in the manner of Till Eulenspiegel, since it has no detailed plot; instead it is inspired by the verse-drama by Nikolaus Lenau and gives a series of glorious episodes from the drama, depicting Don Juan’s seductions and triumphs and ending in his demise in a dual (is this the place to point out that you pronounce the title Don Huan, like the Spanish do, and not Don Juwan like a vast number of idiotic musicologists? No? Oh well – you know now).

I have to confess, the piece was new to me, and I couldn’t have chosen a better performance to introduce me to this impressive piece of late German composition. The orchestral colour was splendid, with extremely subtle dynamics and tremendous texture. The RLPO are clearly very comfortable with the piece and their enjoyment was plain to see. It was an absolute treat, and the beautifully balanced entry of the four french horns towards the end made me smile with sheer delight. Special mention should go to Thelma Handy, the orchestra’s leader, who performed her solos with great delicacy. All in all, a piece with aplomb (which always makes me think of lead, though the word, like the performance, is anything but leaden).

Next on the programme was the Brahms Double Concerto; rather a contrast to Don Juan in that it was Brahms’ last orchestral work, and naturally shows a great maturity of style. It was premiered in 1887 by Brahms’ great friend Joseph Joachim, the violin prodigy, and the cellist from Joachim’s string quartet, Robert Hausmann, a very eminent performer himself (Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, Brahms’ Cello Sonata No.2 and Stanford’s Cello Concerto were all dedicated to him), and was by way of being a peace offering between the composer and his virtuosic friend, who had fallen out some years earlier. It is a glorious work (and I say this as one who is not Brahms’ greatest admirer) with a dramatic opening theme, a relaxed and romantic second movement and a finale that is guaranteed to get the heart racing.

Here I have to admit, the orchestra fell a little short of my expectations. As often seems to happen in performances of concerti, the strings in particularly lacked attack and the orchestral passages felt a trifle unenthusiastic. However, the attacca missing from the main body of the orchestra was more than made up for by the soloists. Sister and brother duo Mari and Håkon Samuelson were absolutely stunning in their performance and played with enormous vitality. That’s not to say they lacked subtlety – there was colour aplenty and the piano passages were extremely tender. I think the familial relationship had a great deal to do with the complete togetherness of the performance – there are bars where the theme passes between cello and violin, and in those moments the two instruments sounded as one – extraordinary. The amusing faces soloists are wont to make when playing concerti disappeared quite early on into the performance as the Samuelsons got stuck into the serious business of playing.

The orchestra’s muted colour came into its own with the second movement, though sadly it felt at times rather like they were playing by numbers – the phrasing was slightly lacking, though the brass and woodwind were superb. The final movement, however, was ace – plenty of attacca, drama and colour throughout and my heart was pounding with excitement as the movement raced to its climax. The audience was evidently as enthused as I was, for the applause went on long enough to permit an encore – Passacaglia by Mr Mumblemumble (a very eminent composer) for violin and cello duet. Utterly precise, brilliant duet playing – divine. I would recommend going to see these two up-and-coming performers if ever you have the opportunity.

The orchestra were back to full form with the Enigma Variations (first part here). The actual Enigma is still unknown – and Elgar gave no clues beyond saying, “No – nothing like it,” to any attempt at guessing it – but the Variations are charm itself and an eloquent expression of Elgar’s distinctive style. They are all depictions of various friends of the composer, and I don’t think I’ve ever encountered so…what’s another word for charming? They really are just delightful! I was expressing the idea to my colleague that musical jokes are seldom as funny as the composer wants them to be (the great exception being Hely-Hutchinson’s highly entertaining little setting of Old Mother Hubbard, which had Abi and me shrieking with laughter), but I definitely cracked a grin and even chortled at several of these lovely variations – “Troyte” in particular made me laugh. I have scribbled all over my programme in great appreciation of the RLPO’s handling of the music, mostly words such as “super!” “smashing!” “oh, the wind!” (and I’d not even been eating curry), and, quite frequently, “brass!!!” (did I mention how simply sublime the RLPO’s brass were?), but I think the best compliments must be reserved for the percussion. It’s not often one gets to describe a percussionist as “tender”, but the RLPO’s timpanist (who, I am utterly thrilled to say, rejoices in the name of Neil Hitt) was just that – delicate, precise, and absolutely brilliant. The rest of the percussion (sadly not all of them are listed on the website, so I can’t be entirely sure who it was I saw) were similarly divine.

All in all, this was a hearty performance and I would be glad to recommend the RLPO, the Samuelsons, Strauss, Brahms, Elgar, late 19thC music in general, Liverpool and, most importantly, the Philharmonic Dining Rooms (known locally as The Phil and purveyors of a rather fine selection of beers and cider; they also have possibly the country’s only listed urinals, which are closed for an hour every day so that ladies may come in and view them). My enthusiasm at the evening was such that I had another pen-clothing interface during the applause and covered my final remaining clean pair of trousers with ink. Never let it be said I did not suffer in the service of others. I am now home and the kittens have been trampling over me in an effort to persuade me never to leave them again. Bless their little hearts.

ETA: I have since found out via Auntie Google that the Passacaglia was not by Mr Mumblemumble at all, but by Handel. I suppose I should have known that, really.

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