Back at their Cadogan Hall home base, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra presented a programme that made a mockery of travel restrictions – whether imposed by Covid or Brexit. Felix Mendelssohn bookended the concert. Mendelssohn was a great traveller, a polyglot, and took direct musical inspiration from his travels, showcased this evening in his “Italian” Symphony and his windswept Hebrides Overture. Other stops on the journey were provided by Mozart in his Prague-based, Seville-set overture to Don Giovanni and Rodrigo’s sun-kissed Concierto de Aranjuez.

Chloé van Soeterstède
© Valerie Bernadini

Chloé van Soeterstède, conducting intuitively and for the most part without a score, introduced each work with warmth and generosity. She has an eye for textural detail and clarity of expression. Right from the opening downbeat of The Hebrides, the strings set the mood perfectly with a cold gleam. Cellos and bassoons offered storm-tossed melodic shapes. The finest moment, perhaps, was the unearthly still of the clarinet duet towards the conclusion, receding into the distance. 

Sean Shibe is a guitarist renowned for his versatility and expansive musical imagination, whether playing a Bach lute suite arranged for guitar, the miniatures of Sofia Gubaidulina, or the painfully loud music of George Lentz. So it felt a little disarming – though hardly unwelcome – to hear him in something as well-trodden as this most famous guitar concerto, a work inspired by the Palacio Real de Aranjuez, south of Madrid. Rodrigo was something of a traveller himself, writing musical explicitly Spanish in its forms and rhythms but studying composition in Paris with Paul Dukas.

This shone through clearly in Soeterstède’s attentive conducting, which called forth Rodrigo’s delicate textures and timbral range. A socially-distanced RPO had the effect of heightening moments of imitation and counterpoint in the accompaniment; Soeterstède intuited a broad palette of light and shadow across Rodrigo’s delicately weighted score, with shades of Debussy’s Images at times. The second movement, with an understatedly lyrical cor anglais solo, sounded like something out of Ravel.

Shibe’s playing in this warhorse was superlative – and discreetly amplified. There was rhythmic exactitude across metallic, gutsy passagework in the first movement; Shibe shuttled between the mellow areas towards the fingerboard and more excitable, percussive playing a little metallic bite. 

In the second movement he drew out the same kinds of timbral contrasts and nuances across each register, which rather helps when Rodrigo seems set on wearing his big tune out. Most remarkable, perhaps, was the featherlight touch and whisper quiet of the second movement’s cadenza, as soft as the Egyptian cotton sheets that’ll set you back down the road at Peter Jones. In the final movement he was rugged and playfully astringent, navigating Rodrigo’s rhythmic games with élan. 

After some slightly workmanlike Mozart – I am not entirely convinced of the overture’s qualities as a standalone concert piece when stripped of its dramatic context – we returned to the lively bloom of Mendelssohn’s sunniest symphony, a piece he called “the most cheerful I have ever written”. 

Soeterstède conducted with verve and grace, eliciting transparency and precision from her RPO forces. Particularly impressive in the first movement was quicksilver passagework from the strings, alongside big garrulous Italian gestures and gleaming sunshine. The taut, martial theme of the development, which opens out into a brief fugato section, was especially gripping and beautifully transparent, tension building until the joyful recapitulation. 

The second movement is an homage to Goethe. It is also an impression of Italian pilgrims, who were evidently light on their feet that day, emphasising the con moto of the tempo marking. Though in D minor, Soeterstède emphasised the lyrical and lighter qualities of the movement. The third movement, which Soeterstède called “a very normal Minuet”, is perhaps hardest to make the most of in a symphony whose middle movements are somewhat unremarkable, and Mendelssohn’s classicism felt rather drab, notwithstanding some graceful footwork from horns and bassoons in the Trio. 

The sparkling A minor saltarello raced out the gates with focus and purpose, with lots of dramatic light and shade in dynamics contrasts and another thrilling fugal episode. With energy coursing through it like this, no wonder music (most of the time) heeds no borders.