Elgar’s Froissart Overture was his first score for orchestra, named after Froissart’s chronicles of the middle ages and headed by a line from Keats: “When chivalry lifted up her lance on high”. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra strings launched into its opening with fire and precision, and the faster sections could not have been more chivalric if Tadaaki Otaka had conducted in full armour waving Excalibur. In fact, he does not use a baton or any extravagant gestures, for his unpretentious manner is effective enough. This ambitious score has five separate themes and each was affectionately played, with that blend of nobility and pathos we call Elgarian. Perhaps the tempi in one or two of the slower sections threatened to tip over from calm to becalmed, and the usual 12 to 13 minute length became nearer 15, but we were clearly invited to wallow a little in a work which should open concerts more often.

Tadaaki Otaka © Masahide Sato
Tadaaki Otaka
© Masahide Sato

Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto is hardly omnipresent in the concert hall either – unlike the veteran soloist John Lill, one of whose repertoire of eighty concertos this happens to be. He performed with a technical ease suggesting he played it every week, but with a freshness that rather implied he had come to it recently and wanted us to share his discovery. He is of course a master of much Russian repertoire – he and Otaka have given us some fine Rachmaninov together – and this occasion mostly measured up to the expectation that such a pedigree created. 

There was plenty of spirit in the outer movements, even if they never quite ignited into a high romantic blaze – the relative decorum of the interpretation perhaps a way of stating that Tchaikovsky has much more to offer than superficial excitement. Not that the combative moments or the various piano solo passages lacked excitement – they were superbly executed – but it was the lyrical aspects of the work that bloomed most brightly. We were given the full original text, not Siloti’s truncated diminution of the work, so we had the whole of the great, slow movement. This is at times almost a piano trio, so extensive and demanding are the parts for the orchestra’s principal violin and cello. These were wonderfully well-given by Duncan Ridell and Richard Harwood. It is sometimes claimed that the composer wanted to write as different a piece as he could from the now ubiquitous First Piano Concerto, and hence the scale, texture and integration of the Second. This was a performance that supported and validated that conception, and it was greeted with a warmth that indicated the absorption the audience felt throughout its – on this occasion – near fifty-minute length.

Tchaikovsky wrote the exhilarating finale of his concerto in a few days. Walton took so long to finish the finale of his First Symphony that it was premiered without it. That was in December 1934, a grim year for English music that saw the deaths of Elgar, Holst and Delius. But with the completed work Walton became their worthy successor, and the symphony has held its place ever since. Walton’s star has faded since then, it seems, and this fine symphony is not performed as often as its status would suggest – perhaps because it is a demanding piece to play and therefore to prepare. But it was clear from its wonderfully expectant opening that we were in very safe hands. The soft horn chords, the insistent rhythm in the second violins, the Sibelian oboe tune, all made their mark in the rising excitement of this intricately composed exposition. Otaka expertly managed its two speeds; relentlessly swift figuration combined with a slower but inexorable undercurrent. 

The pace and drive (and rhythmic trickiness) continued into the scherzo, marked con malizia, though not one hopes indicating malice toward the orchestral players of the RPO, who relished the challenge. The andante, the Romantic heart of this modernist work, requires the conductor to guide the players through a single arc of growing intensity, as the throbbing pulse and fragmentary themes struggle to flower until the movement’s single hard-won lyrical climax is reached, and the music then falls away. Here Otaka had mastered the architecture as well as the shifting textures to ravishing effect. The Finale, with its extra percussion and stirring fugue, returned to the work’s primary mood of constant momentum, right up to the slow valedictory trumpet solo – a lament maybe for exhausted musicians (the concert finished at 10 pm). 

Of course recent terrorist attacks make us reluctant to cross London’s bridges and go to crowded public events. But these performers and their programme deserved far better than the less than 50% house. It was good to hear the RPO in such ripe form, and giving their all to a distinguished guest conductor and their skill to works which need their advocacy.