Saturday, May 25

Nielsen’s Violin Concerto – Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

Let me let you into a little secret.  When soloists embark on their concerto cadenza (an extended, elaborate virtuosic solo segment where the orchestra stops playing and the soloist takes centre stage) I stop watching what they are doing and ‘people-watch’ the orchestra and conductor.  For there are few things better than watching professionals acknowledge professionals – putting their own instruments down, enrapt, leaning forward for a better look at the action, smiling and even nodding in appreciation at the skill of their fellow performer. 

So, it was last night with Swedish-Norwegian violinist Johan Dalene, the RLPO Young Artist in Residence who was last seen here performing the Korngold Violin Concerto.  The Neilsen Violin Concerto affords not one but two opportunities for extended cadenzas, where RLPO Principal Guest Conductor Andrew Manze, himself a violinist of some renown, got to see up close the rapid string crossing, double stopping, obligatory stratospheric violin writing, and even moments of simultaneous playing with the bow and left hand-plucked strings which showcase the extraordinary talents of this young virtuoso.

First on the programme was British composer Ruth Gipps’ Song for Orchestra, written in 1948 with clear influences of her mentor Vaughan Williams.  It opened with a pastoral oboe melody surely influenced by her own study on that instrument with Liverpool-born Leon Goossens, and played tonight by recent addition to the RLPO, Oboe Section Leader Helena Mackie.    She may be diminutive in stature but don’t let this fool you – the oboe is one of the most stamina-sapping instruments to play and she is a true heavyweight performer.  With lush strings and brief horn and bass clarinet solos, this was a beautifully lyric opening piece.

Next followed Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s Violin Concerto, composed in 1911 and first performed the following year in the delightfully named ‘Old Fellow’s Mansion’, conducted by the composer.  Unusually for a concerto, Neilsen structured his concerto in just two movements rather than the usual three, though these are fairly big blocks, each divided into two.  Opening with a declamatory Bach-like Praeludium, the first movement is delightfully melodic and after its extended cadenza precedes a tremendous chromatic climax.  The second movement progresses to a jaunty, almost jazz-like motif, which brings a glint to Dalene’s eye and a particular sway to Manze’s conducting.  With the aforementioned second cadenza the piece builds to a triumphant conclusion.  Dalene then delighted the appreciative audience (and orchestra) to a solo encore of the third movement of Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3, a lively Gavotte which was seemingly so effortless in its execution, it gave one the impression that Dalene would knock off a partita or two before breakfast as part of a virtuoso’s morning routine.

The final work of the concert was Alexander Borodin’s compact but striking Second Symphony, which took the part-time composer, full-time research chemist and polymath six whole years to complete, with a further four-year gap to its first performance in 1879.  Its dramatic unison opening utilised the dark colours of lower register strings, whilst the second movement challenged the horns, trumpets and wind with long sections of rapid, repeated notes under urgent wind and string melodies.  The third movement has a strumming harp accompaniment, shimmering strings, and a splendid horn solo (played by RLPO Principal Tim Jackson), which segues directly into the final movement, a lively dance with tambourine and cymbals, culminating in a thrilling, accelerating climax.

Containing some lesser-known works of the classical repertoire, this concert was an opportunity for even regular concertgoers to expand their horizons.  I’ll certainly be looking further into the music of Ruth Gipps, whom the programme notes describe as ‘formidable, combative, and with a tremendous appetite for life’.  Sounds like just my sort of composer.

Reviewer: Mark Humphreys

Reviewed: 11th April 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.