The theme of the first half of last night’s concert seemed to be love, in two of its many guises. Firstly of the sickly sweet variety: the love between hero and heroine in Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini, the opera from which he took material for the Roman Carnival overture. The second is that slightly darker love; the one which inspires you to write a great cello concerto after hearing that your sister-in-law whom you once hoped to marry is dying. Or maybe that’s just Dvořák.

Eric Larrayadieu
Eric Larrayadieu

Due to the unfortunate illness of the RPO’s Principal Conductor Charles Dutoit, the young Venezuelan Diego Matheuz bounded onto stage in his place. Berlioz’ operatic love scene and depiction of the Shrove Tuesday carnival began with an expressive cor anglais solo played by Leila Ward in which Cellini, a Florentine sculptor, sings of his love for his enemy’s daughter and his hope that she won’t forget him. Matheuz’ controlled tempo in the joyous carnival scene allowed festivities to be merry without ending in tears. After a seemingly nervous start the 26-year-old conductor appeared to relax into the music, even jumping on the rostrum a great deal towards the end.

Shakespearean-style dramatics out the way, the stage was set for Dvořák’s Cello concerto in B minor. It was written during the composer’s second trip to America, when news reached him that his wife’s sister Josefina was ill. Dvořák immediately added a ‘Josefina’ theme to the concerto, working her favourite of his songs into the slow second movement. Upon returning home the composer learned that Josefina had died, leading him to add a wonderfully reflective coda onto the end of the concerto. This music contains some of the composer’s most heartfelt writing and begs the question: what must Mrs Dvořák, Josefina’s sister, have felt?

Regardless of the propriety of the feelings expressed in the concerto, soloist Mischa Maisky clearly understood the universal tragedy of the death of a loved one. His cello sobbed, grieved and raged against death with an extraordinary human voice throughout the thirty-five minute concerto, not once losing intensity of feeling. It was a shame the orchestra was a shade too loudly passionate in a few places as Maisky had to spoil his sound occasionally in order to cut through, however it was obvious that we were listening to a great musician who was not afraid to really beat his cello from time to time in order to perform with maximum impact.

Following the interval an enormous orchestra came onstage for Mussorgsky’s much-loved Pictures at an Exhibition, originally written as a piano piece and rewritten for orchestra by Ravel after the alcoholic Mussorgsky’s death. The second half of the concert was to have been Stravinsky’s Petroushka but this changed with the change of conductor, clearly a good choice as it was in this piece that Matheuz’ conducting really came into its own. Particularly impressive were his choices of tempi: The Old Castle, a medieval flavoured movement which describes a painting of a castle, was an example of the beautifully inert, dreamlike state Matheuz is able to create by virtually pulse-free conducting; while the final movement which depicts the great gate of Kiev was magnificent in its grandeur. In movements like this Mathuez’ majestic pace was deliciously forward moving, a great juggernaut of sound which unrolled magnificently. A good tempo also made the portrayal of the witch Baba-Yaga especially memorable for its terrifying energy as she rides triumphantly through the woods. The character and sheer volume of sound that Matheuz was able to get from the orchestra suggests we will see a lot more of this young Venezuelan in concert halls across the world.