Sometimes you just want some good old-fashioned adventure. In the latest instalment of Alexander Shelley’s evocative Myths and Fairytales series with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the imagination was given a thorough workout with magical imagery of a mountainside witches’ sabbath, a nocturnal journey of wonderment through nature, and an epic tale of emancipation and heroism against the might of the Roman army. Hot-blooded stuff indeed for a chilly night in London.

Yi-Jia Susanne Hou
© Wright Music Management

The adventure began with the chatter of witches and their satanic sabbath rituals. Mussorgsky’s tone poem Night on Bald Mountain was destined for a larger project, sadly unrealised during his lifetime, leaving his friend Rimsky-Korsakov to rearrange the score into the version we usually hear today. Shelley was straight in, demanding demonic scrapings from the strings and cackling calls from the woodwinds, but with the brass slightly heavy and lagging in places. Eerie murmurings turned into wild and frenzied antics, wonderfully reckless, before Shelley carefully receded into the calmness of the dawn, with a fine wistful flute solo suspended in thin air.

The lyrical exuberance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major provided a diversion from the magical storytelling of the rest of the programme, with violinist Yi-Jia Susanne Hou reuniting with the RPO after last year’s successful collaboration. Hou is a class act. Not seen too much on these shores, she drew the audience in from the opening bars. Musically eloquent and emotionally engaged, Hou threaded her way carefully through the first movement at an unhurried Moderato pace and with an overriding sense of meditation, although the group did occasionally lose momentum. Her lyricism and sweetness of tone in the upper registers was impressive, as was her rich vibrato, and with no shying away from grinding hard when aggression and passion emerged. The cadenza was serene and fiery, and the Canzonetta, despite the opening bars feeling slightly clipped, had an undulating fluidity – more like an Adagio than an Andante. The frisky finale ran hell for leather, with Hou demonstrating physicality and extraordinary technique, especially in the spiccato passages.

Shelley then returned to nocturnal discovery, but of a different sort. Instead of witches and diabolistic rites, we were taken through Sibelius’ depiction of riding through the forest at night, experiencing the wonders of nature and rejoicing in the glory of daybreak. His tone poem Night Ride and Sunrise was inspired by the composer’s journeys through the forests and expansive landscapes of Finland, with echoes of his Second Symphony in the “ride” and the majesty of his Fifth and Seventh Symphonies foreshadowed in the “sunrise”. The relentless galloping started off crisply enough, but became a little untidy. The stirring hymn-like transition, however, was wonderfully executed leading to an uplifting sunrise, with Shelley shaping deft and steady strings and winds pulsing over warm brass pedals.

The tale of Spartacus is a thrilling one, a slave turned gladiator who led an uprising against the Roman army, and exclamations of “I’m Spartacus!” captured in the 1960 film becoming synonymous with solidarity, defiance and rebellion. Aram Khachaturian’s score for his 1954 ballet Spartacus is brazen and flamboyant, characterised by exotic sweeping melodies and driving rhythms that capture the true spirit of adventure. 

And so it was, with loins fully girded and buckles well and truly swashed, that Shelley took us through the Roman orgiastic excesses and Spartacus’ quest for emancipation with a collection of extracts from the composer’s orchestral suites. This is the piece that had the RPO shining in all its glory. A jaunty Introduction and Dance of the Nymphs set the scene exotically before a gorgeous and indulgent rendition of the famous Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia, fulsome and passionate, with an oboe solo full of longing. Shelley bristled with raucous urgency, the RPO punching and pummelling in the rhythmic irregularities of the Entrance of Spartacus and effusing zesty swing in the colourful waltz before the rampant Bacchanalia closed proceedings with all guns (or, more likely, swords) blazing.