Ray Chen is a natural showman. At the Royal Festival Hall last night, his easy-going charm was tangible from the moment he came on stage and greeted the orchestra members to his announcement of his choice of encore, a solo adaptation of the arrangement of Waltzing Matilda that he plays in quartet on his current album, a nod to his Australian upbringing. The encore was pure Chen magic, a kind of “Aussie outback meets Bach partita”, all the tricks of the classical  virtuoso applied to a folk tune that everyone will know. Double stops, high harmonics, fast semiquaver runs and all the rest, all done with lyrical sensitivity to the piece’s nostalgia.

Ray Chen © John Mac
Ray Chen
© John Mac

Chen’s Bruch concerto started a touch wobbly – literally, with massive vibrato – but soon settled down into a solo performance that was delightful to listen to. His timbre was clean but with plenty of colour, his command of cantabile impeccable and his control the dynamic contour of a fast run impressive: the accent on the long note which ends the run would come exactly as the natural end to the run, timed perfectly to the beat. If the wave of the bow after the phrase ends smacks too much of Lang Lang theatricals, I can’t fault the music or Chen’s sheer love of it, evidenced by half-closed eyes and a half smile. The Bruch is a familiar work, but the beauty of its second movement and the energy of the third remain hard to beat.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the London Philharmonic Orchestra also had some lovely moments. Unfortunately, most of those moments came in the passages when they were playing on their own: they seemed to struggle to achieve any kind of meaningful interaction with Chen. The imposing orchestral tutti were strong, vivid, nicely marked. But when accompanying Chen, the dynamics became jerky, as if the orchestra were only finding the right level part way through the phrase.

The main work in the second half of the concert, Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, was another uneven orchestral performance. Some sections of the LPO performed with excellence: timpanist Simon Carrington and the five strong percussion section were outstanding throughout the evening, the horn version of the famous promenade was imposing, the strings showed excellent togetherness accelerating through the dark phrases of Gnomus. Saxophonist Martin Robertson played the solo of The Old Castle with fluidity, well accompanied by bassoons and pizzicato double bass. But the initial trumpet announcement of the Promenade theme lacked swagger, the closing march through The Great Gate of Kiev didn’t provide the outburst of unbridled joy that we hope for. In between, many good orchestral moments – unhatched chickens chirping cheerily, the Jew Goldenberg rumbling thoughtfully – didn’t quite link together.

The piece I enjoyed most, which opened the second half, was another work inspired by Russian folk tales: Anatoly Lyadov’s Kikimora, a depiction of a Slavic house-sprite, set, the music made me imagine, in an isolated home in the forest. Sibelius-like dark string phrases swept around accented interjections from woodwind and celesta. Here, the LPO’s string section were on particularly fine form in the swell and release as the flow of sound ebbed and flowed. Together with two other short Lyadov folk-inspired pieces, they provided the pleasant surprises of an uneven but entertaining night.

***11