The Royal Northern College of Music Symphony Orchestra finished a triumphant week for the College, following some excellent Sondheim on Wednesday and Haydn’s Nelson Mass last night. In a hefty programme which just about ran to 10pm, the young musicians proved that they really can make a strong case for being a fourth orchestra in Manchester well worthy of attention in their own right.

Clichés abound in writing about young orchestras, but there was more to tonight’s performance than the predictable ‘energy’ and ‘enthusiasm’ of a student performance. In a warhorse as often played as Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto they found fresh and interesting things to say, and in Shostakovivch’s monumental “Leningrad” Symphony their playing was impressively unforced and full of confident maturity. That the orchestra had given much of the concert from the edge of their seats and with admirable stamina was taken for granted by the end. Such achievements had been far surpassed.

Assistant conductor Marco Bellasi, one of the two current Junior Fellows in Conducting at the College, opened the concert with Stravinsky’s Fireworks, giving its chief themes a muscular foundation with a strong, vigorous beat. This gave an early indicator of the outstanding talent and technical facility which would remain a feature of the evening, despite multiple changes in wind section personnel for each piece. Ian Wildsmith’s horn acrobatics were particularly memorable in this respect.  String textures might occasionally have been clearer, but this was quickly forgotten by the final flourish of the piece.

In the Tchaikovsky, the confidence exuded by orchestra and soloist Ryan Drucker permitted some pleasingly original playing, as well as tremendous power from the piano. He maintained a gripping intensity in his playing, with dynamics tending towards the louder side for much of the first movement. Even if there were moments when slightly closer engagement with the orchestra might have encouraged a more even balance, the prominence given to the piano cast a bright light on the solo line. Fortunately, Drucker’s playing was near spotless.

The slow movement was well set up by its opening flute solo (Amy Yule), which was hauntingly beautiful in its delicate phrasing and tasteful vibrato. After the brisker middle section, pianissimo strings and soft chords in the piano interacted with striking sensitivity, well controlled by conductor Baldur Brönnimann. The strings frequently demonstrated a wonderfully soft-edged legato throughout the concerto, from their soaring melody at its outset to the climactic ‘big tune’ of the finale. They became more incisive in the dashing dances of the third movement. The woodwind were again richly characterised in their chirping figures in the finale, all sparkling charm and zest along with the crisp strings. After an inexorable push towards the final pages and a thundering cadenza from Drucker, Brönnimann led a charge to a thrilling finish. Judging by the audience whoops at the last note, Drucker is a popular man, and this performance will have won him more friends.

Baldur Brönnimann © Yaniv Cohen
Baldur Brönnimann
© Yaniv Cohen

Brönnimann’s account of the Leningrad symphony was compelling listening, intelligently and effectively paced and shaped into a colossal whole, peaking with possibly the loudest sound I have heard in the concert hall. He began proceedings with a busy, bustling opening, in blissful denial of the horrors to come. All eyes turned to the side drum as he began his mammoth journey (the part makes Ravel’s Bolero seem a trifle), the sound held with good control at almost an imperceptibly quiet outset. Only when the brass entered did Brönnimann allow dynamics to creep up in earnest. Great attention was paid to string articulation, giving the melody some superbly detailed character. As the great crescendo grew the music became increasingly brutal rather than wild. A monstrous climax was much aided by the addition of three trumpets and trombones in the choir seats above the orchestra, playing out directly into the audience. Samuel Brough’s ensuing bassoon solo was suitably wide-spaced and plaintive to allow some degree of recovery.

The woodwind playing in the inner movements was also excellent, notably from the Eb clarinet and a heartbreakingly melancholic oboe solo. A continued sense of simmering tension was carried into the desolate slow movement. Here the grief-stricken strings and strikingly beautiful flute playing made the quicker central section seem all the more aggressive, rollicking along with panache.

Brönnimann moved directly into the finale, neatly adding to the breathless tension of the opening. The movement’s first climax saw some very well controlled, furious string playing, bows flying off strings with gusto. The subsequent ascent to the end of the symphony was slowly paced, highlighting a few tragic moments on the way. When it came, the end was shattering. The extra brass came to their feet dramatically, and with their on-stage colleagues threw enormous power into the triumphant ending. The closing bars’ timpani solo was hammered out with spectacular double-stopping, closing a very memorable performance.

****1