Francesca da Rimini – Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, Op.32
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 (Pathétique)
Nicola Benedetti (violin)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 1 November, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Two helpings of Tchaikovsky separated by Korngold’s Violin Concerto may have been good box office but might have been thought too much of a good thing. In practice – especially in performances as good as these – it worked very well although hearing the Korngold in the wake of Francesca da Rimini was rather like the musical equivalent of slipping into a warm bath after a long journey home through atrociously stormy weather.
Launching a concert with Francesca da Rimini is a hard ask of any orchestra. This is music of almost hallucinatory intensity. Ideally an orchestras needs to have played itself in to fully reveal the work’s febrile potential. In this performance minor flaws and counterbalancing virtues were present in roughly equal measure. There was some less than perfect wind chording at the outset and more than a few fluffs in both wind and brass solos later on; yet Diego Matheuz was able to elicit both weight and finesse from the strings and shape Tchaikovsky’s long lines to great effect. He was also able to generate that level of visceral intensity essential if the inferno music is to register fully, and the final plunge to the Abyss was appropriately cataclysmic.
Korngold’s Violin Concerto, written at the end of World War Two, is most associated with Jascha Heifetz. The work abounds in luscious melodies drawn from Korngold’s film scores and closes with a kind of hoedown. It opens with a glorious melody and continues in similarly lyrical vein, more “Caruso than Paganini” as the composer put it. It received an outstanding performance helped by the most sympathetic of accompaniments, the RPO playing with polish and sensitivity. Nicola Benedetti’s sounded fully at ease, even in the finale’s stratospheric passages, and the close of the ‘Romanze’ brought genuine magic from both soloist and orchestra.
Despite being amongst the most popular of symphonies, the ‘Pathétique’ is no sure-fire success. Even the greatest conductors have fallen at this particular hurdle, moments such as the first movement’s seismic climax misfiring if technical proficiency is not complemented by a Life and Death intensity. What was particularly impressive about this account was the sure-footed way in which Matheuz negotiated the potential pitfalls whilst giving full rein to emotion, the first movement’s arc understated at the outset but building naturally through its various sections towards the climax. The 5/4 ‘Waltz’ flowed elegantly but without fuss and the ‘March’ was taken at a sensible speed leaving plenty in reserve for its thunderous climax. At this point where the enforced elation of the ‘March’ is followed immediately by the finale’s overwhelming despair there was unsolicited applause, breaking the spell. Consequently, although deeply felt and dignified, the last movement did not cap the symphony as it should. There were some unusually sophisticated touches, however, notably the very softest of gong-strokes near the close followed by a sensitively balanced trombone chorale. Elsewhere there was much to admire, notably Michael Whight’s genuinely ultra-pianissimo clarinet solo preceding the first movement’s ‘thunderclap’ and excellent string-playing throughout. Only 28, Diego Matheuz is clearly a name to watch.