It is not often you can say that the conductor’s outfit was as ornate and charming as the billed programme, but the entrance of a silver-coated Grzegorz Nowak proved that even a conductor’s first bow can be the perfect aesthetic prelude to an evening of similarly silvery, charming music.

Grzegorz Nowak
Grzegorz Nowak

Segueing from Nowak’s playful entrance into something just as musically beguiling, the programme opened with Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, an orchestral arrangement of a suite of dances from the composer’s opera Prince Igor. The opening was neat and graceful, light strands of melody overlapping with precision, the first dance gliding along with a delightful absence of gravity. As the dances become more raucous, the tone quality was penetrating yet sparkled with finesse, cutting and beautiful at the same time. There was always a tremendous buoyant enthusiasm in the dance rhythms, but there were points where the playing did feel a little metrically unsafe and liable to fly off the wheel. Particularly in the later dances, there were moments where the music felt as if it were running away with itself; the pizzicato occasionally a little smattered instead of precisely together. The interpretation was faultlessly enthusiastic, but almost too much so, somewhat like the difference between being on the edge of your seat and gripping on for dear life not to fall off it entirely.

There was a change of cast for the second item with Julian Steckel replacing Dimitri Maslennikov as the soloist for Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations. Given it was such a last-minute swap and also the German cellist’s debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Steckel rose to the occasion and the performance was a solid one, with technical assurance and many signs of deep musical thought behind the interpretation, but at times there needed to be more authority in the playing. The pianos were always beautifully shaped and exquisite in tone – the feather-light scaling up and down in the upper registers of the instrument deliciously played – but the fortes seemed a little forced and wrestled from the instrument as opposed to being allowed to ring.

Each of the variations had character and individuality; the harmonics at the end of the third variation had a clear and translucent tint to the sound, executed precisely and laudably given the technical challenge; the finale was performed with particularly abundant panache and style. There was nothing in the playing that ever felt wrong or out of place, but everything just needed to be bolder and bigger, with a bit more of a soloist’s swagger.

From the world of dances and variations to an entirely symphonic New World, the tail of the programme was swallowed by Dvořák’s popular Symphony no. 9. The opening was grave and contemplative, slow and stately without ever dragging. As the first movement heated up, the orchestra came to life, boiling over with enthusiasm and excitement, but just as in the Polovtsian Dances, there was occasionally a tendency to feel as if the music were rushing away from itself and needed to sit on its hind legs a bit more. The second movement (arguably the most famous of the four given its use in a famous 1970s advert) was perfectly poised and yet heartfelt, a truly touching rendition. The cor anglais solo was divinely phrased and handled with dignity and emotion, the achingly muted sound weaving through an unending stream of strings. There is always the risk that with a well-known piece, the interpretation will be generic or unoriginal, but even given its familiar status, the music was freshly and emotionally presented, an immense pleasure to listen to.

The opening of the third movement was clearly enjoyed by audience and players alike, the mental queasiness of cross-rhythms and hemiolas enjoyably bewildering, the cheekiness of phrase after phrase bickering with each other like watching musical tennis across the orchestra. The poco sostenuto section lost its lustre somewhat, but it perked up again as soon as the piece swirled back into action and the original theme returned. The final movement tied the performance into an exuberant bundle: the tension of the first movement, the grandeur of the second, the charm and wit of the third all merging to polish off the concert with a rich culmination of characterful music and playing.

Grzegorz Nowak conducts Borodin, Tchaikovsky and DvorákMadelaine Jones reviews Julian Steckel's debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Grzegorz Nowak at Cadogan Hall.3