With its patina of respectability, it’s easy to forget that classical music does feature some rather trippy pieces of music – perhaps none more so than tonight’s Symphonie fantastique composed by Berlioz, a notorious opium user.

Stanislav Kochanovsky © Askonas Holt
Stanislav Kochanovsky
© Askonas Holt

Evocations and daydreams encapsulated the opening and closing pieces of tonight’s programme: Debussy’s gloriously seductive L’après-midi d’un faune and Berlioz’s youthful, imaginative Symphonie fantastique. Sandwiched in between these delectable and audience-friendly works was Bartók’s spikey Violin Concerto no. 2. In Ukranian violinist Valeriy Sokolov’s hands, we were treated to some riveting playing.

The haunting flute melody which opens L’après-midi d’un faune trickled out in a hushed, tantalising way while the harp answered with a delicate frisson. Conductor Stanislav Kochanovsky made the music breathe with meltingly tender phrases. Shimmying harmonies on the strings suggested elusive pleasures while the sweep of sound from the whole orchestra created a charged, tumultuous atmosphere. What was most impressive was the way in which the gossamer threads of yearning were spun without a break throughout.

Sokolov’s rich, warm tone on the G string over the mesmeric harp plucking instantly impressed in Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 2. Possessing an intense vibrato which he employed liberally, Sokolov attacked his fast passages with bravura. His was an intense, serious reading of the first movement which suited the slow, haunting melody of the second subject but perhaps lacked a little bit of chutzpah in the zanier, jazzier sections of this movement. The NSO responded with much verve, its ominous passages full of menace.  

In the Andante tranquillo Sokolov produced a shimmering tonal palette coaxing the folk theme along, particularly on its final iteration. Rudely interrupting this dreamlike state, the finale launched with some spectacular spiccato and gypsy lightness of touch while the orchestra provide some sharp bursts of colours.

Smitten by an Irish actress, the young Berlioz wrote his Symphonie fantastique as a way of pouring out his emotions. A Romantic work par excellence, its hallucinogenic fantasies never fail to capture the imagination.

Kochanovsky delivered a searing account of this fantastical symphony. Taking the opening of “Reveries – Passions” at a sedate pace he captured the uncertain romantic stirrings of the young musician to a tee – now hesitant and shy; now explosively energetic. There was a matter-of-fact quality to the idée fixe on its first appearance – instead of over-milking it, Kochanovsky allowed the melody to speak for itself. The chromatic staccato scales were wonderfully evocative and there were moments when Kochavonsky leaped up and down in his enthusiasm.

Charming and suave for the most part, there was, however, the occasional disjointed playing among the strings in the second movement “Un bal”. The final meditative idée fixe possessed a Zen-like moment of calm before finishing off in a frenzied waltz.

There was a hypnotic quality to the cor anglais’ and oboe’s melody at the beginning of the third movement. Not even the conductor intervened in this private conversation but allowed each player to unfold the delicate threads of their melody in a natural way. When finally the full orchestra entered, it was like a warm glow of sunshine.

Restraint was key to Kochanovsky’s interpretation of the fourth movement “Marche au supplice”. Adopting a stately pace which suited the serious nature of the march, the music swaggered along, helped largely by the boisterous and gregarious tone of the brass. But it was the fifth movement which really had us enthralled. With its sinister grunts, squeals and moans the NSO gave a thoroughly evocative account of the coven. Special kudos goes to the clarinettist in E flat for a thoroughly nasty, croaking rendition of the idée fixe. There was so much that was thrilling here: the fateful Dies Irae, the brilliant fugue, the raucous syncopations. Kochanovsky ratcheted up the tension till the hairs stood on the back of my neck before an explosive final flourish. 

***11