Zoltán Kodály was an ethnomusicographer as much as a composer: he studied the folk music of Hungary, and this influence can be heard in most of his works. Dances of Galánta is no exception, yet it is so much more than folk melodies arranged for an orchestra. As an orchestral suite it’s dynamic yet consistent; the rhythms are upbeat and make you want to dance (as a dance suite should), yet the melodies are intimate and subtle. The woodwind section was excellent, playing the incredibly demanding and high-speed parts with ease, each one sounding as beautiful as the next. I was not very familiar with Dances from Galánta before this concert, but it put a smile to my face and I will definitely listen to it more often now.

Nicola Benedetti, © Rhys Frampton
Nicola Benedetti,
© Rhys Frampton

Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto no. 1 exudes a different kind of emotion. Although it starts off almost like Debussy or Stravinsky, with fairytale elements, it soon turns into something more difficult to digest. And by "difficult" here I don’t mean unpleasant or unnecessarily challenging for the listener – it was an absolute joy to hear this piece, but it has many layers that can be more difficult to comprehend than, for instance, the Dances of Galánta, which were fairly straightforward both melodically and rhythmically. The concerto has four movements but they all have reasonably similar tempi. Being a big fan of violin concertos by Bartók, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, I did miss a scherzo, which Szymanowski’s concerto does not have. But this is only a small complaint, as the concerto really is breathtaking at several moments. The first movement was my favourite, from its dynamic opening with animated woodwinds, to its brooding solo violin part.

Nicola Benedetti famously won the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 2004 playing this concerto. If that performance was anything like the one we saw on Friday, her victory was much deserved. Her playing is subtle and very emotional; you can hear that she knows the piece incredibly well – there are no little moments of doubt, only one continuously great performance. My only caveat is that she could have been slightly more powerful and less careful in some of the louder sections, but that might just be my personal preference. All in all, it was a great performance from such a young violinist.

Almost as young was conductor Diego Matheuz, who made his debut conducting the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra this evening. Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is such a staple of the repertoire that the Radio Philharmonic must have played it many times before, and it is up to the conductor and his interpretation to make it something special. And Matheuz did not disappoint. The Symphonie Fantastique is in an of itself a beautiful work, from its romantic opening movement to the last two movements, which I always find the highlight. Berlioz wrote program notes for this symphony that he wanted to be included in any recording of the work, and in it he explains the meaning of the piece. The first movement concerns the artist’s first love, a love so intoxicating that her melody keeps haunting him. The second movement, "Un Bal", is precisely as the title would suggest – about a ball, a feast. In the third movement, the artist is depicted in the countryside, brooding and "disturbed by dark premonitions". And then in the fourth movement, the artist tries to poison himself with opium – which doesn’t lead to death but to hallucinations and dreams, in which he has killed the woman he loved and is sentenced to death. The fifth movement is similarly dark, it depicts a witches’ sabbath for his funeral. In this movement the use of the Dies Irae theme combined with the mad dance of the witches creates somewhat of a raucous affair.

Matheuz’s excited body movements (including quite a few jumps – surprisingly high ones!) never interfered with his skill as a conductor – he had the orchestra completely under control yet managed to bring out the most in them. The important melodic themes were as present as they should be, yet there was an extra sense of excitement, something beyond the score. Matheuz’s own high energy levels seemed to have seeped into the orchestra which created a fantastic performance. The standing ovation and calls of "bravo" were much deserved.