Cadogan Hall was the busiest I’d seen it for several months for last Thursday’s concert. This was surely partly due to with programming Grieg’s evergreen Piano Concerto in A Minor and Dvořák’s Symphony no. 7 in D minor, one of his finest, to form the heart of the concert. Grieg and Dvořák are always complimentary bedfellows, close contemporaries who both infuse their compositions with a nationalistic spirit.

Alexandra Dariescu © Ikon Arts
Alexandra Dariescu
© Ikon Arts

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture, the fourth and final overture composed for his only opera. In contrast to the previous three, this iteration, composed in 1814 after Napoleon’s defeat, contains no themes from the opera itself but more serves to convey the forthcoming drama of the opera. The wind writing is notably more complex than in his previous overtures, the clarinets and horns in particular taking a prominent role. The RPO’s interpretation, led by conductor Alessandro Fabrizi, was adequate if a little perfunctory, failing to quite capture the revolutionary spirit of the piece and thus accentuate the nationalistic connection with the Grieg and Dvořák. 

In what felt like an odd programming decision Fabrizi remained on the stage to conduct Mascagni’s Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana. Whilst the opening was sufficiently delicate, the, albeit short, piece failed to build to to an impassioned climax and it felt like an unnecessary diversion. 

Rising star Alexandra Dariescu then graced the stage to perform one of the most ubiquitous piano works in the repertoire. The intrinsic challenge in any performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto is crafting an distinctive interpretation; that stated, the glacial freshness of Grieg’s writing prevents the work from seeming staid. The famous opening was well-executed, crisply making an impact and from that moment the concert began to grab my attention. 

Dariescu's playing throughout exhibited an engaging combination of poetry and muscularity. The rippling arpeggio passages that frequent many a Romantic piano concerto were articulated with a richness that suggests she would be formidable in Rachmaninov. Occasionally her playing was perhaps too intense, the concerto’s acknowledged debt to Schumann was slightly lost.

There could have been more dynamic variance in the slow movement, however, the slower passages in the final movement exhibited the delicacy that had been missing previously. The performance, however, left no doubt of Dariescu’s promise.

With his Seventh SymphonyDvořák set out to write a piece that would ‘stir the world’. Whilst premiered in London in 1885, the piece has an undeniably Czech flavour; however it also betrays the influence of Dvořák’s mentor and friend Brahms. Dvořák had heard Brahms’ Symphony no. 3 shortly before he composed this work and its influence can be felt, particularly in the dynamic rhythmic motifs that pepper the piece. Whilst they had been accomplished partners in the Grieg, this work allowed the RPO to shine. The ominous opening, the complete antithesis of the opening of the concerto, was captivating. The balancing act in a performance of this symphony is to acknowledge the debt to Brahms without erasing Dvořák’s unique character. This was largely achieved with earthy, organic playing from the woodwinds which prevented an overly stately performance.

Unsurprisingly for a composer whose Cello Concerto is a cornerstone of the repertoire, Dvořák’s writing for the lower strings is always inspired, even when the piece seems to be indulging in a moment of smooth, rhapsodic melody the cellos and double basses can have surprisingly busy parts. This was one element that could have been accentuated, particularly in the wonderfully turbulent final movement. That said, aside from an unfortunate split note in the brass moments before the final cadence, the piece sped towards a cathartic conclusion.

***11