Is there any country in the world more universally loved than Italy? The splendid cities, art, food and music have cast their seductive spells over the world for centuries and this evening’s concert by Royal Northern Sinfonia and Julian Rachlin looked at Italy through the eyes of Russian tourists, of visiting European lovers reading Dante together and through the eyes of emigrées looking back from distant South America.

Julian Rachlin © Julia Wesely
Julian Rachlin
© Julia Wesely

Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence does exactly what the title says, as he started writing it whilst he was in Italy before finishing it back at home and he deftly mixes Italian sunshine and opera with melodies inspired by Russian folk music. Royal Northern Sinfonia, with Rachlin directing from the first violin performed the string orchestra version of the piece, launching into its spirited opening with zest. In the dark stillness of the chords that open the second movement, we got a brief glimpse of the melancholy that seeps out of Tchaikovsky’s last symphonies, before some exquisite pizzicato led us back to the sunshine of Italy. Rachlin and cellist Brian O’Kane sang through the slow movement with warm glowing tones, at times the two lines sounding as if they were pouring out a great operatic love duet.

After this outpouring of holiday reminiscence, Tchaikovsky brings us straight back to Russia with a solo viola playing an unmistakably Russian sounding melody, although before too long there are some playful Italian rhythms coming in to relieve any over-indulgent Russian passion; throughout the piece, Rachlin and Royal Northern Sinfonia caught the contrasting spirit of the Russian and Italian styles very nicely. It was fun to watch the interplay of the musicians on stage too – there was a lot of eye contact and smiling going on, which meant that the big slow-up, quirky coda and surprise ending of the third movement came off with aplomb. I enjoyed the energy that went into the fourth movement, as a vigorous folk dance gives way to a big operatic finale, all played with a real sense of fun.

Liszt’s Concerto Fantasy after reading Dante took itself somewhat more seriously but despite Sergei Dreznin’s skill and imagination as an arranger, there was no disguising the fact that this is really piano music, from the big crashing chords at the beginning to the interplay between the upper and lower strings towards the end. We didn't need to be told which bit of Dante Liszt had been reading when he wrote this music, not when the RNS was feverishly whipping up hellfire on the stage in its sinister lead in to Rachlin’s cadenza. Rachlin began with quiet, forceful anger and built up into a pyrotechnic solo line, full of technical challenges, made all the more impressive because he was clearly in the best of health. The full strings return after the cadenza with chilling harmonics to distort the melody and Rachlin’s final solo over tremolo accompaniment brought the piece to a surprisingly understated end.

Argentina was heavily populated by Italian immigrants at the turn of the 19th century, among them Ástor Piazzolla’s parents, and his musical influences were a mixture of jazz, Baroque and traditional Argentine tango music. All these elements come together in a glorious riot of sound and colour in Los Cuatros Estaciones Porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires), a set of four pieces describing the changing year, arranged for string orchestra and solo violin by Leonid Desyatnikov from Piazzolla’s original scoring for tango band. If all this sounds familiar, Piazzolla even quotes from Vivaldi, but switches things around to match the Southern Hemisphere seasons, so the first movement is summer, but with passages from Vivaldi’s Winter slipped in amidst the heavy tango rhythms (and vice versa in Piazzolla’s Winter). The RNS and Rachlin caught the spirit of these pieces delightfully from the very first bars, with sultry slides in Rachlin’s solo line accompanied by percussive bow slaps on the lower instruments. Throughout the different moods of the four movements, the tango was ever-present, with smoky hot, sexy playing from the orchestra.

Autumn in Buenos Aires sounds as if it lashed with relentless rain, the violins skittering around and adding eerie harmonics over a stormy bass line. The wonderful double bass pizzicato in this movement and Rachlin’s athletic solo line made it feel as if we were listening to musicians improvising in a bar rather than a formal orchestra on stage, and Desyatnikov makes full use of the string techniques such as bowing behind the bridge to create the rough colours of the traditional Argentine accordion. The Baroque and tango elements combine at the end of the piece with the double basses driving Rachlin’s feisty cadenza on into heavy chords but finishing with a last couple of chords that were definitely Vivaldi.

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