What do you get when you cross Teutonic drama, Finnish sentimentality and Russian grandeur? The answer, it seems, as displayed by conductor Enrique Bátiz the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in their latest Cadogan Hall concert, is a vibrant and exciting evening of music.

Jack Liebeck © Chris Dunlop
Jack Liebeck
© Chris Dunlop

The concert began, fittingly enough, with a piece written to begin an epic journey: the overture to Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer (“The Flying Dutchman”). The opera was written in 1843, and the plot tells the story of a Dutchman (no surprises there) who is cursed to wander the seas aboard his ship, coming ashore once every seven years in search of a wife in order to lift the curse. In this particular instance, the Dutchman manages to secure the promise of marriage to a Norwegian captain’s daughter, but, as with any opera, everything goes more than a little awry. The overture, as a result, is a dramatic tapestry of the storms at sea and the tormented rages of the Dutchman, interspersed with maritime fanfares and cheekier interludes. The orchestra gave a wonderful rendition of the overture, violins swooping voluptuously up and down to the point of seasickness, trumpet calls blaring and cutting through the thick wash of orchestral colour. The heavy rolling of the orchestra filled the hall with an overwhelming intensity, the richness of sound truly extravagant and Wagnerian.

Segueing from Germany to Finland, that warhorse of the repertory the Sibelius Violin Concerto was next on the programme, with soloist Jack Liebeck at the helm. The almost watery shimmering of the strings at the opening was a beautiful contrast to the preceding rambunctious naval overture, but any initial impression of “the eye of the storm” was soon shattered by Liebeck’s impassioned and tortured playing. Liebeck seared into the strings in the first movement, draining every last drop of expression from the instrument; the violin seemed both large and small in his hands at the same time, his fingers scaling the neck with effortless precision, sound voluminous above the orchestra. The second and third movements were not quite as breathtaking: at times the musical cohesion between the orchestra and soloist could have been better, meaning that despite the fact that both parts were terrifically handled, the interpretation lacked the certain synergetic “wow” factor that the opening had promised. But the overall rendering of the piece was an enjoyable and expressive one, and Liebeck jumped through every technical hoop with ease, and was well worthy of his rapturous applause at the end.

After three bows, Liebeck then returned to the stage for his encore, the Sarabande from J.S. Bach’s Violin Partita in D minor. Once again, the playing was technically flawless and Liebeck showed that Bach doesn’t have to be dry and academic, but can be allowed to sing with lyricism and flair and still be stylistic.

To top off the programme, the orchestra tackled Tchaikovsky’s monumental Symphony no. 4 in F minor, a piece written by the composer in dedication to Nadezhda von Meck, his patron and close friend. The arresting brass fanfare at the opening stole the audience’s attention and held onto it tight for the duration of the work. The theme was said by Tchaikovsky himself to represent fate, and the motif ominously returned again and again throughout the first movement (and in a glorious returning quotation in the fourth movement), each time as foreboding and daunting as the last. The more melodic string motifs were haunting, the two themes conveying an interesting struggle between aggressiveness and passivity. The second movement was more plaintive, the oboe solo at the beginning as bittersweet as a beautiful elegy. The third movement bubbled with contained excitement, the hollow tickling of pizzicato strings bouncing around the marvellous acoustic, wind and brass playing games above the plucking in a jaunty and capricious manner. The final movement brought the symphony, and indeed the evening, to a close, the knoll of fate ringing solemnly before the orchestra galloped vibrantly to the end of a wonderful evening of music.