Paganini’s First Violin Concerto, sounds like the one Rossini never wrote. Fusing the classical structures of Mozart with the bravura soprano coloratura arias of bel canto opera, this work is hugely demanding on the soloist’s level of technical skill. To pull this work off, one needs not only to be such a skilled virtuoso, but also a huge personality, qualities Ray Chen has in abundance. Entering the platform in Philharmonic Hall, he had a cheeky grin and a little swagger, which was truly endearing, but revealed nothing about what the experience of the next 30 minutes.

Ray Chen
© John Mac

Michele Mariotti ensured the opening chord sounded like the grandest Italian opera overture. The opening movement sprung to life throughout the orchestral tutti. Shaping with effective rubato, the flow of the music sounded airy and spontaneous. Chen’s first entry was like the arrival of the diva on the stage. The speed, accuracy and sheer evenness of articulation of Chen’s playing was jaw-dropping, his tone quality incredible. On reaching the cadenza, one was so drawn by Chen’s performance one had completely forgotten about the orchestra. To Mariotti’s credit, he had controlled the RLPO in such a way they became unobtrusive, allowing Chen to shine uninterrupted; technically this first movement was flawless. The second movement again captured the operatic spirit, the diva or violinist in tragic mode. The sound Chen caressed from the G string was phenomenal — a true cantabile tone. Both Chen and Mariotti seemed unified in their vision for the finale, rubato used again creatively allowed the music to breathe allowing each repeat of the rondo theme to sound fresh. This performance wasn’t superficial, there was real depth to the interpretation with a perfect balance of virtuosic finesse and panache with inherent musicality. Chen showed through his impeccable playing his deep understanding of the lines contained within the violin part — accompanying ideas to the rear, melody to the fore. 

Chen addressed the audience with charismatic charm before giving a rendition of Waltzing Matilda as encore. In his own arrangement for solo violin of this infamous song, the rhapsodic piece that followed was deeply emotional and brought a tear to one’s eye. It was like the ghost of Paganini was there saying “I couldn’t have done it better myself”.

Bookending the concerto were two complementary works. Opening the evening was Rossini’s overture to Semiramide. There was much to commend here in this stylishly articulated played curtain raiser. The work was full of rhythmic excitement, but unfortunately without the electricity to make this piece buzz sufficiently. Occasionally, the use of rubato was too exaggerated and whilst the dynamics were fully observed, some of the expression was disappointingly ordinary.

Closing the evening was Dvořák’s sunny and bright Eighth Symphony. This is not a easy piece to pull off convincingly. Dvořák uses a range of contrasting ideas in all four movements, which in the wrong hands can sound like a series of disjointed ideas, but Mariotti gave a wholly convincing performance. The first movement Allegro con brio, was brimming with energy and was nicely phrased. The strings of the RLPO were expanded here to give the sound a real richness which complemented and contrasted with the works of the first half which used a smaller body of players. The brass were occasionally harsh. Rich string sounds enhanced the moods of the Adagio, full of Czech colours. An aptly paced Allegro grazioso just lacked on drama, with light rubato it was as much Italian heart-on-sleeve than Czech in spirit. The Allegro non troppo of the finale was fully observed. Mariotti brought out all the folk dance-like elements. The horns and brass came into their own, they were flawless in their challenging parts. The orchestral sound here was superb, highly polished and warm bringing this rousing movement to fitting conclusion.