RPO Slatkin

Orb and Sceptre – Coronation March
Violin Concerto in B minor, Op.61
Vaughan Williams
Symphony No.5 in D

Mark Kaplan (violin)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 10 March, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

“Rarely, rarely comest thou, Spirit of delight”. So wrote Elgar at the top of the score of his Second Symphony. This quotation, from Shelley’s poem “Invocation”, could equally apply to this excellent concert. Of late, neither the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra nor Leonard Slatkin have received their due from London.

The RPO, approaching the 60th anniversary of its foundation by Thomas Beecham, has lately seemed the ‘Cinderella’ of London’s orchestras, one under-funded and undervalued by an elitist Arts establishment that itself is increasingly irrelevant and out of touch with today’s needs. Slatkin’s tenure with the BBC Symphony Orchestra was clearly a less than happy experience. This excellent evening was a glorious riposte by these artists to their critics.

The chemistry between an orchestra and conductor is often referred to in terms of a marriage. As with a marriage, it takes two to tango. Such chemistry was present here. An energised Slatkin drew out the very best of the RPO – and its best is considerable: warm strings (Slatkin opting for pertinent antiphonal violins, and double basses ranged across the back of the platform to contribute a deep underpinning to the sound), and eloquent, sensitive woodwinds and secure horns. In the Vaughan Williams, the RPO’s Leader, Clio Gould, contributed brief violin solos that were of a silky, lustrous quality.

The concert’s highlight was, indeed, the Vaughan Williams. This was music-making of unassailable rightness and conviction, with much inner detail emerging with unforced focus. Above all, the playing did full justice to the work’s emotional weight. Despite its apparent outward serenity and restraint, VW5 is no mere pastoral idyll but one of the twentieth-century’s truly great symphonies, one with inner tensions and darker crosscurrents. The symphony comes full-circle and reaches a radiant safe-haven, serenity restored. The third movement ‘Romanza’ is the heart of the symphony, music of extraordinary depth and restrained passion, here with fine cor anglais and subtle horn solos from, respectively, Leila Ward and Martin Owen. An uplifting performance.

Elgar’s Violin Concerto was almost equally memorable. Mark Kaplan gave an excellent account of the Berg Concerto with the RPO several years ago. He may not have the most beautiful of tones but this was a keenly intelligent performance: direct, man-sized and completely devoid of the sort of narcissism that sometimes afflicts performances of this music. In Slatkin he found an ideal and sympathetic collaborator. The tuttis packed a visceral punch and the finale’s ‘accompanied cadenza’ was especially notable for the subtlety of the orchestral strings’ thrummed response. There were moments when Kaplan could have let the music expand a little further, the finale’s heart-stopping second theme for example, but it was good to hear the concerto played with such unaffected commitment. Kaplan has both the Walton and Britten concertos in his repertoire. It would be good to hear them from this team.

Walton opened the programme, his Orb and Sceptre Coronation March delivered with gutsy panache, the Festival Hall’s organ contributing materially to proceedings, the ‘big’ tune expanding with ripeness.

One quibble. The audience. Some people clapped after nearly every movement, not though, for some reason, the scherzo of the Vaughan Williams. The worst example was at the end of Elgar’s slow movement – with the music still playing! Would it be beyond the wit of the RPO’s management (or the RFH’s) to make an announcement discouraging this very annoying, and ignorant, practice?

  • Leonard Slatkin returns to the RPO on 5 April (Cadogan Hall) and 7 April (Royal Festival Hall)
  • RPO

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