For those who like their orchestral music Romantic, strident and generally unrelenting, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert on 1 November was just the job. Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D major, played by Nicola Benedetti, was sandwiched in between two emotionally charged pieces of Tchaikovksy as the RPO under Diego Matheuz played to a packed Royal Festival Hall.

Nicola Benedetti  ©  Decca / Simon Fowler
Nicola Benedetti
© Decca / Simon Fowler

But first, Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini. This work has at its heart two lovers from Dante’s Inferno; the adulterous Francesca herself and her brother-in-law Paolo Malatesta. Slain by the former’s husband when they kiss, the pair have been doomed to hell – the second circle, to be precise. The subject has been given numerous treatments across the arts, Tchaikovsky’s being perhaps among the most opulent. Composed in 1876, it is a tremolando-laden affair and lusciously scored, the intensity reflecting Tchaikovsky’s increasing mental tumult. The beginning sees the upper climbing as the lower strings descend, evoking the relationship between heaven and hell.

The RPO were confident in their depictions of hellish turmoil, as sweeping string figures ratcheted up the tension. They were less confident in the more exposed loving moments. Solo woodwind and the harp danced and flirted around each other, but the dance sometimes verged on messy. Still, the ferocious ending was enough to banish the memory of that, as another rousing descent into diabolic strings-led furore took over, the final gongs both condemnatory and celebratory.

Next up, the Korngold was resplendent. Korngold was born six years after the death of Tchaikovsky, and grew up into a world moving on from Romanticism. But his huge talent for the style of this passing musical era led him to Hollywood in the 1930s; this violin concerto contains more than a few quotations from his film music, while the violin is a brash, domineering character in the drama. During the concerto, Nicola Benedetti produced her customary fireworks while the orchestra were very much in accompanying mode. It’s been a good year for the 25-year-old Scot – who won a Classic Brit Award for Best Female Artist and has a new album out – and she seemed to enjoy the strident melodies and flourishes which make up much of this piece. Her new disc, which includes this concerto, celebrates film music, and tonight, she was clearly comfortable in screen siren mode.

The orchestra has its moments in the piece, displaying the melodies and colourful palate of the film music with which the Austrian composer made his name. Conductor Diego Matheuz, however, an accomplished El Sistema graduate still in his twenties, sometimes seemed to hold back a little, reining in the Romanticism in the piece rather than nourishing it. The energy of Benedetti, especially in the breathlessly exciting end to the first movement, made this something special.

The same could be said of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6, “Pathétique”. The final two movements were a little rushed and although it was neatly played, passion was a little lacking at points. That is, until the second movement, Allegro con grazia, where conductor and orchestra finally came out of themselves and upped the sense of momentum and even playfulness.

A cry of anguish sweeps across the orchestra as the finale (Adadio lamentoso) begins, recurring towards the end of the movement; Tchaikovsky’s personal melancholy, as he neared death, is again tangible. This was one of the slightly rushed episodes, but the movement was otherwise effective in its moods and hues. The audience repeated the classic mistake of applauding at the raucous end of the third movement as if it were the end of the piece, arguably understandable considering the bombastic chords with which it ends. Finally, the actual last movement faded sensitively to a sustained moment of silence – a mature ending to an evening of highly-strung Romantic sentiments.

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: Korngold Violin concertoKaty Austin reviews Diego Matheuz, Nicola Benedetti and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing Tchaikovsky and Korngold.4