Symphony No.8 in B minor, D759 (Unfinished)
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.26
Serenade No.1 in D, Op.11

David Garrett (violin)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 1 November, 2005
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

The Royal Philharmonic is enjoying considerable success in finding new audiences. Just a few nights earlier, Daniele Gatti’s Royal Albert Hall concert of Debussy and Stravinsky attracted a largely youthful audience of nearly two-and-a-half-thousand people. At this Cadogan Hall concert a gratifyingly full house, including a substantial number of young people, greeted Leonard Slatkin, the RPO’s recently appointed Principal Guest Conductor for what might have appeared a conventional programme, but it was one with a twist: the inclusion of Brahms’s all-too-rarely-played D major Serenade.

Cadogan Hall is not the most forgiving of acoustics for an orchestra – especially when heavy brass is involved – but the Serenade is for modest forces. On this occasion, with a slimmed-down string section founded on four double basses, and with divided violins, the quality of sound was consistently beautiful.

With the same number of personnel, Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’, with both movements swift, had its moments too – some subtly matched wind-playing towards the close of the second movement – but too frequently came across as aggressive and hectoring due to particularly insensitive trombone playing. In this hall less is definitely more. The biography for the 25-year-old German-American David Garrett included press comment as to him having “one of the most beautiful sounds of today”. However, there was little one would care to remember about this narcissistic performance, devoid of any genuine legato, which treated the music as a mere vehicle for display. Slatkin and the orchestra did their best with their erratic soloist.

All was redeemed by the Brahms, an absolute gem of a performance. Slatkin has a real feeling for this piece (he recorded back in his St Louis days) and he brings out the distinctive character of each of the six movements – a leisurely slightly ‘shadowy’ quality to the first scherzo for example, and a tender unsentimental warmth to the Adagio that lies at the work’s heart. He was hugely helped by the RPO’s woodwind section, especially flautist Emer McDonough, but all the winds brimmed with personality, the antithesis of homogenised blandness and just right for this music.

Although it could be argued that the first three movements – an Allegro in sonata form, a scherzo, and an extended Adagio – are akin to those of a symphony, the inner spirit of the piece is one of joyous contentment. Under Slatkin, it was warm, exuberant and consistently infused with a feel-good factor. The finale had a spring to its step and positively tripping along. One could have listened to the whole thing again!

  • RPO
  • Concert repeated – Dvořák ‘New World’ replacing Brahms – on 2 November at Fairfield Halls Croydon

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