The last time versatile virtuoso Julian Rachlin appeared with PKF – Prague Philharmonia, he was finishing up an artistic residency at the 2018 Prague Spring festival by conducting the orchestra in a program of Brahms and Beethoven. It was clear then that he had a lot of ideas, and a long way to go. Judging by his return to the Rudolfinum podium three and a half years later, he’s made significant progress. 

Julian Rachlin and Sarah McElravy
© Ivan Maly

This performance opened with a rare treat, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola in E flat major. A better combination of performers would be hard to imagine: Rachlin conducting and playing violin, his offstage partner Sarah McElravy playing viola, and a chamber orchestra that specializes in the Central European repertoire providing lush backing. Add in the sublime sounds of Rachlin’s 1704 Stradivarius and McElravy’s 1785 Lorenzo Storioni, and you’ve got a ticket to transcendence.

From the opening notes, Rachlin conjured a golden sound from the orchestra, a quality not many guest conductors have achieved. Most try to impose their interpretation on Mozart’s music. With Rachlin, both the sound and energy seem to come from within, emerging organically, radiant and thrilling. Giving musicians of this caliber space to play also helped. Throughout the evening, that proved to be one of Rachlin’s strengths – measured pacing and varied tempos that allowed the players to be more expressive. The effect was captivating, music that had you breathing along.

Julian Rachlin, Sarah McElravy and the PKF – Prague Philharmonia
© Ivan Maly

Rachlin and McElravy look at each other a lot when they play, but it’s clear that they don’t need to. They share a psychic connection that manifests in rhyming lines, split-second timing, very fine gradations in dynamics and sensitive dialogue, like the exchanges of grief and consolation in the Andante, which were highlighted by elegant, nuanced support from the orchestra. Rachlin and McElravy showed they know how to have fun, too, swaying through spirited solos in an exuberant finale. Still, what lingered after they left the stage was the divine sound of their instruments together in the cadenzas, exquisitely sculpted by two gifted players.

If the remainder of the performance was not as inspirational, it nonetheless showed Rachlin to be an able craftsman. The sound was well-balanced, the details in the music clear, and Rachlin’s feel for the material was both instinctive and cerebral. Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony featured a robust sound with big dimensions, vivid colors, full-blooded Romantic expression and electric intensity in the high-volume outbursts that punctuate both movements. Melodies were teased out with tender care and given time to blossom. Rachlin took his final bow afterwards standing behind the podium and score, putting the music front and center.

Julian Rachlin conducts the PKF – Prague Philharmonia
© Ivan Maly

The concluding piece, Mozart’s Symphony no. 41 in C major, “Jupiter”, never achieved the golden glow of the opener. But under Rachlin’s baton it offered an impressive demonstration of how a masterwork can be both powerful and elegant. In a clean, crisp rendering, Rachlin found lyricism, drama, and a compelling rhythm in the third movement that propelled the piece to a smart, sharp finish. Some of the fire was missing in the final minutes, but none of the exuberance, which Rachlin tempered with thoughtful phrasing to keep the piece exciting and just short of predictable.

The evening ended with enthusiastic applause from both sides of the podium, with the musicians just as charged as the audience. No surprise – the chemistry onstage was tangible. And the smiles, handshakes and words exchanged amid the plaudits suggested that it will not be another three and a half years before this scintillating pairing is reprised.