Though it was the third in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s “Myths and Fairytales” series, this concert almost required the broader heading of “Fantasy”. Two works inspired by classic legends – the prelude to Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel and excerpts from Grieg’s Peer Gynt – bracketed fantasy of a very different kind, Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder, a product of the priapic composer’s intense love affair with Mathilde Wesendonck who wrote the poems to which the music is set and offered inspiration for Tristan und Isolde. It’s thoughtful and multi-layered programming of a kind which is always a pleasure to encounter.

Alexander Shelley
© Thomas Dagg

At a time when the leadership of the RPO is vacant, Alexander Shelley’s relationship with the orchestra as Principal Guest Conductor is a boon. Shelley is an easy communicator in the mould of Elder and Rattle, delivering the sort of engaging and accessible introductions from the podium that are seen far too infrequently. The Hänsel und Gretel overture is a natural appetiser on the concert programme and the RPO seemed enervated under Shelley’s baton. The opening brass playing was round and full-toned, a sense of stately gleam flashing across serene violins and sedate woodwind. Hustle and bustle preceded and contrasted with moments of rich lyricism and grandeur; Shelley drew bold, glossy playing from the orchestra, placing a clear emphasis on colour.

That energetic approach perhaps compromised the Wesendonck Lieder. The orchestral performance often seemed to be in conflict with mezzo Madeleine Shaw rather than embracing and lifting her sound. Shaw’s projection at the bottom of the voice lacked the push of her higher register and with a composer whose words are so significant, this detracted from the impact of the lieder. A performance with piano accompaniment would likely bring to light more of the subtleties of her interpretation, the gentle shading and generous phrasing that became increasingly present as she progressed through the lieder. Although not as alive to the balance between orchestra and voice as necessary, Shelley brought out the sense of longing, the throb of the opening to Träume particularly well-judged.

Then from the neat Swiss grounds of Villa Wesendonck to the fjords and mountains of Norway and Grieg’s incidental music to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Slight definition problems aside, the RPO gave a lively performance, at its strongest in moments of boisterous colour such as the wedding music at the start of the work when the strings sufficiently evoked the folksy-peasant scenery, and the famous “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, which was certainly not lacking in enthusiasm. The woodwind came across particularly well, light and subtle, but clear across the strings. Pacing was generally tight, but after a flavoursome “Arabian Dance”, the orchestra seemed to fade somewhat, the spark a little dimmer than at the start. Vocal contributions from students at the RCM were respectable, with a nuanced account of “Solveig’s Cradle Song” from Julieth Lozano Rolong, and both the Herd Girl and Bedouin Lady scenes were sung with humorous glee. A very pleasant way to pass a Saturday afternoon.