In memory of violist Coen van der Heide who passed away earlier in October, the Rotterdam Philharmonic opened with the second part of Antonín Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings, which was deeply moving and followed by a minute of silence. Ottorino Respighi’s Fontana di Roma was the first piece on the official program. It is a four-movement orchestral suite written in 1917, each movement depicting a different fountain in Rome (as the title would suggest). It is the first of a tryptich of orchestral works inspired by Rome, a city where Respighi moved to in 1913. Although not as dramatic as Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.1 or as melodic and exciting as Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.2, Fontana di Roma was beautifully played and carried the listener away off to Rome. The piece is full of Debussyan depicitions and in particular the first movement La fontana di Valle Giulia all'alba really does remind the listener of dawn and water. It is a very fluid piece with some fun moments where the brass gets to go all out but it remains underwhelming – probably because it is programmed with two powerhouse Russian works that it cannot compete against in musical or emotional depth.

Hans Graf © Christian Steiner
Hans Graf
© Christian Steiner

From Rome to Russia, Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.2 was written in 1935 and consists of three movements. It is not quite as upbeat as his first violin concerto, and is somewhat heavier to listen to. But this heaviness certainly doesn’t take anything away from its beauty. The concerto opens with a brooding melody in the solo violin that sets the tone for much of the first movement that is turbulent yet full of incredible melodies. The second movement, ‘Andante assai’ is probably one of Prokofiev’s more famous pieces of music. It almost sounds like a classical, Brahms-like piece, while containing some of the beautiful harmonies that we know so well from Prokofiev’s ballet music. This movement relies heavily on the intonation of the violinist and Vadim Repin was an absolute joy to watch and to listen to, clearly enjoying the concert while giving every note an intense emotional content. The final movement starts with an upbeat, catchy melody in the violin but the bass drum becomes increasingly important, and the soothing nature of the second movement is replaced by a foreboding feeling. Gradually the violin’s melodies become darker and even the castanets cannot soothe the darkness. The audience gave a roaring applause to the orchestra and in particular to Vadim Repin, who then played one of his customary encore pieces; Paganini’s Carnevale de Venezia, one of the most virtuoso pieces ever written. Repin played it with such ease and fun – an astounding feat. I can only hope he returns to Rotterdam again soon and gives us yet another memorable evening.

Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.1 sounds like a quintessentially Russian piece. It is brooding, at times bombastic, and chock-full of melodies that linger in your head for days. Its premiere in 1897 was a bit of a disaster because the orchestra and conductor had not practiced enough (and there’s a rumor that the conductor might have been drunk) and a lot of critics panned it, after which it was never performed again during the composer’s lifetime. Tonight’s performance was the absolute opposite. Showing once again why they are one of the best orchestras in the Netherlands, the Rotterdam Philharmonic embodied the symphony, playing every single note as you feel they should have done and made it seem incomprehensible as to why this symphony was ever panned. The second movement was astonishing in its clarity, vivacity and understated beauty while the fourth movement was an insanely energetic and upbeat movement that gave both the symphony and the evening an ending it deserved. There is a certain simplicity about this symphony – you understand it the first time you hear it – but it never becomes dull or predictable. The more I hear the Rotterdam Philharmonic play Russian music, the more it becomes clear to me that this is exactly what they excel at, and the next few concerts in their Russian Fall series will probably be just as fantastic.