Beginning a concert with a concerto is, on paper, a curious concept and can make a programme feel unbalanced, which were my reservations here. Max Bruch’s Double Concerto for clarinet and viola is an interesting one; seldomly performed and overshadowed undoubtedly by his more popular first violin concerto. Written in 1912, this three-movement work is occasionally performed replacing the clarinet with a violin as was the case here. Julian Rachlin conducted from his violin, joined by his wife, Sarah McElravy, on viola. 

Sarah McElravy
© Julia Wesely

An impassioned viola solo opens the work, with a very much improvised feel, which McElravy played with great expression. Immediately one was aware this was the beginning of a rather special evening. Throughout the concerto, the chemistry between the soloists was, as one may expect, extremely strong. These two musicians were equally matched both technically and musically, the strength of the bond between them was very strong, even down to imitating each other's vibrato. The pair switched between the dark, more virtuosic episodes to the lighter lyrical moments with effortless ease, but maintained their own individuality. Whilst this may have appeared to be rehearsed, the performance was natural and flowed effortlessly. The balance with the orchestra had been taken into account; a reduced string section allowed the soloists, McElravy especially, not to be overshadowed while still sounding full and rich. Premature applause in the last movement temporarily broke the ambiance, but was forgiven for such an exceptionally engaging performance. 

Mozart’s Linz Symphony was the central work, with the number of strings increased. Like the Bruch, Rachlin directed without a score. Across the four movements, he found rhythmic drive and energy which created a unity throughout. Rachlin's approach to the work was intriguing. The fortes and pianos — and every gradation in between – were nuanced and different, bordering on being overly fussy, however the tempi choices kept the momentum going throughout. The strings had a richness of tone, executed with light vibrato. The performance felt satisfying, but it was the final movement which shone the most. Here the music spoke for itself, Rachlin relaxed, a vitality and radiance bloomed. Energy built through the closing pages, peaking aptly at the right moment, to an uplifting conclusion.  

After the interval came one work, Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony. Rachlin clearly understood its structural and expressive elements. In the recapitulations, the themes spoke differently, with an increased intensity on some occasions and more aloof on others, bringing an overall air of spontaneity. In the first movement, passages contrasted strongly between the darker episodes and more lyrical moments, the recapitulation surrounded by an air of mystery, as if shaded by Scottish mists. A buoyancy prevailed in the second movement, which balanced the more plaintive first. The third movement was gently expressive without sentimentally, which was broken suddenly by the vibrancy of the final movement. The audience appreciation was something not heard in Philharmonic Hall for sometime. 

The playing of the RLPO was excellent, the strings especially, whose intonation in the unison passages was flawless. The slightly unusual nature of the programme was obviously carefully considered and played to Rachlin’s strengths both as soloist and conductor.