Are you finding, dear reader, especially after recent events, that things increasingly seem to be getting you down and that you can’t take much more? Then have no fear and take heart, because Doreen Carwithen (aka Mary Alwyn) fully empathised with your predicament when she wrote a concert overture inspired by John Masefield’s One Damn Thing After Another (ODTAA). The title belies the music, which like the novel itself is pure escapism. Though not suggestive of the exotic and fictional South American state of Santa Barbara in which Masefield’s piece is set, the music (written in 1945) was almost certainly a refuge from the grim and dreary immediate post-war world. It combines moments of swashbuckling adventurism à la Korngold with pastoral serenity not far removed from Vaughan Williams. Richard Farnes and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra made a good case for this as a charming concert opener.

Richard Farnes
© Jack Liebeck

Making her RPO debut, the soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major was the young Dutch violinist Noa Wildschut. She took a long time to settle in the first movement, with early signs of a problem that was to worry me throughout. This is one of the composer’s sunniest works and requires not only a radiance in the top line but the ability to sustain the long arching melodies in true cantabile fashion. To be sure, she conjured up a deep and soulful richness, especially on the G string of her Guadagnini instrument, but it was offset by uneven bowing and rhythmic unsteadiness leading to an absence of that floating quality in the Canzonetta which should ideally entrance the ear. This was in marked contrast to the liquid tones from the RPO woodwind.

Wildschut seemed at her happiest when negotiating the rapid scales and furious double-stopping in the Finale where purity of line mattered much less. Here, as earlier too, her choice of very flexible speeds, sometimes lingering excessively, with sudden scoops of phrasing and occasional snarls, suggested that she had her own very definite views about this particular fiddle concerto. These have differed enormously over the ages, from Eduard Hanslick’s well-nigh incomprehensible notion that this was music “whose stink you can hear” to a belief that wide stretches are infused with the grace and elegance of Tchaikovsky’s favourite composer, Mozart. In an age when personality seems to matter less than technical precision, this interpretation was certainly different.

The RPO has taken to getting introductions from its conductors. Before Sibelius’ Second Symphony, Farnes reminded his audience that this piece was regarded as quite revolutionary on its first appearance. I was half expecting him to transport his listeners to the sunshine-soaked world of Italy where this work was conceived and sketched. Instead, there was a ruggedness to this performance aided by very brisk tempi. Dark and brooding lower strings, with groans and cantankerous twitches at the start of the Finale, pungent woodwind, glacial trumpets and demonic trombones emphasised the northerly chill to the sound. This was a landscape of big boulders, outcrops of granite and shards of ice, an overwhelming bleakness tempered only by the tang of pine forests. In its bracing qualities there was occasionally a surfeit of energy and excitement, to the point where the marching theme in the final movement was almost hurried along, leaving grandeur and majesty to look after themselves.

Farnes included in his introductory remarks an anecdote about a performance of this symphony to which Stravinsky had taken his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov, at the end of which the grand old man of Russian music declared, “Well, I suppose you could do it like that too.”