Wagner’s Prelude to Lohengrin reveals the essence of the ensuing drama. Liszt, who conducted the first performance, noted the scoring of the Prelude evoked three elements: woodwinds for Elsa, brass for the King, and high-lying divided strings for the Grail. That last element was well played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra last night at Cadogan Hall, though something of its gleaming radiance eluded them. The piece runs between eight and ten minutes and here was much nearer the swifter timing, to its advantage. The long crescendo was ideally paced by conductor Jac van Steen, flowing towards the climax in which the woodwinds and brass were not all quite dead centre in their tuning. Satisfying enough, if not at the level that leaves one longing for the curtain to rise.

Rosanne Philippens
© Marco Borggreve

Instead, Wagner here provided a preface to music by one of the most gifted of European Jewish exiles of the 1930s. Korngold went from Vienna to Hollywood and there wrote only film music, vowing not to return to concert music until Hitler was defeated. So in 1945 he could produce his Violin Concerto in D major, which draws its material from several of his successful movie soundtracks. Richly scored, with an array of percussion including cymbals, gong, tubular bell, glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone and celesta, it unfolds a fund of melody too good to languish in cinema archives. Soloist Rosanne Philippens, in her debut with the RPO, played beautifully, as if she believed in every note of a still sometimes disparaged concerto. The exquisitely phrased opening theme is from the film Another Dawn (1937), but in spanning two octaves in five notes suggests more the world of Viennese expressionism Korngold left behind. No need to turn down the lights and serve popcorn, but perhaps van Steen did not indulge the music‘s origins quite enough initially. But he warmed to the task more in the touching central Romanze, and especially the finale with its brazenly Technicolor orchestral tuttis, repurposing The Sea Hawk (1940) among others.

Rachmaninov is a composer used by Hollywood rather than writing directly for it, and his Second Symphony used to get the soundtrack treatment, suffering frequent cuts. Now we hear it all, except that as here the first movement’s exposition repeat is often omitted. This typically reduces a 60-minute score to 55, but either option works well if the conductor realises that those rich harmonies and stirring tunes benefit from keeping the score flowing, which Steen certainly did. In a pre-concert speech he suggested that if you can count the occurrences of the Dies irae in the score and send that number to him, he could enter you in a lottery. So he knows how tightly this work, once accused of meandering, is constructed. He displayed its incidental glories, and managed its tricky transitions of mood and tempo, in a completely persuasive long view. The RPO responded magnificently with their finest playing of the evening.