Life is full of upsets. Conductors and soloists sometimes fall sick or cannot appear as originally intended. Audiences then have to deal with anticipation unfulfilled. Yet spare a thought too for those individuals who walk out as replacements, knowing that they might possibly meet a sea of disappointment. Artists can also have off nights and fail to satisfy not only the expectations of concertgoers, but their own commitment to the highest possible standards. Alena Baeva was the scheduled soloist in this Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concert with Gemma New in charge. The stand-in at very short notice in Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no. 2 was the young Dutch-American player Stephen Waarts. 

Stephen Waarts, Gemma New and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
© Matt Otty

This concerto is a sombre work, predominantly dark and brooding with stark and spare textures, though the sparks can certainly fly in the Finale. Waarts is a willowy figure and he stood very close to his conductor, hardly engaging with the orchestral players, his instrument often held well above the level of his shoulder. Posture was virtually a cipher for vertical rather than horizontal projection. At times he seemed to be communing with himself within the bleak world of Shostakovich’s creation instead of reaching out to the audience. He took a long time to settle in the opening Moderato too, with wavering intonation and lines not uniformly maintained. His approach was sometimes quite fierce, injecting an appropriate sense of anguish, and he made light work of the pizzicatos and double-stopping, but he was never as full-throated as he needed to be. After the spectral imaginings of the Adagio, graced by fine horn solos from Christopher Gough (whose poise was evident in the symphony that followed), the Finale was an opportunity for hi-jinks. Waarts was at his best here, negotiating the rapid scales of the final cadenza with aplomb, accompanied by shrieks and squawks from the orchestra. 

New is slowly forging a worldwide name for herself, having recently been appointed principal conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. She has a very physical presence, with an angular baton technique and scooping movements of the left hand, looking like the rotating blades of a vehicle about to be airborne. The energy is certainly there, evident in the opening Carnival Overture by Dvořák and especially in the main work, where you were conscious of every bar being minutely directed. Rhythms were kept taut, entries precisely cued. What was missing, however, was subtlety in phrasing. Angularity in body language does not yield much warmth either. 

Once she sets a basic tempo, as in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, New sticks to it. No time for speeding up or undue relaxation, not a hint of swooning from the strings, this was a reading steeped in the purely symphonic tradition. I’m sure Evgeny Mravinsky would have approved. Delight in colour and forward momentum was a linking feature, even in the slow movement where charm, grace and elegance were in short supply, though here and in the following Valse there were some finely chiselled dynamic shadings.

But, and there’s always a but, an important dimension was left out of account. Even if you disregard all the lugubriousness of the opening Andante, you need to be aware of what the composer set down as the programmatic idea behind the first movement: “Complete resignation before Fate”. Very little in the earlier movements emerged as doom-laden, and this made New’s over-bright view of the Finale not so much a hard-won triumph over all adversity as jubilation writ large. Judging from the precision of the playing, this is where a lot of rehearsal time must have been expended. But where was the soul?