Tuesday night’s concert closed the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s From Paris to New York series, exploring the extremely significant role these cities played in the development of classical music in the early 20th century. From the jazz-infused New York style to the progressive exploration of colour and harmony typical of musical development in 20th-century Paris, it was a programme of riches from Ravel, Gershwin and Debussy. Consequently, opening with Weill’s Little Threepenny Music, a suite from the eponymous opera scored for woodwind, brass, percussion and piano felt excessive given the volume of music still to come. This was accentuated by the decisions to perform all eight movements from the suite. The performance was slightly lacklustre and the stop-start nature of the eight movements made for a slightly underwhelming opening to an otherwise exciting concert.

Peter Jablonski © Benjamin Ealovega
Peter Jablonski
© Benjamin Ealovega

It was refreshing that conductor Alexander Shelley, engaged with the audience as the stage was reorganised to accommodate the piano and a string section, providing witty and accessible insights into the programme. The two piano works, on either side of the interval, were a neat demonstration of the heights of creativity reached in both cities. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue followed Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, although it might have been more interesting to reverse the order as Ravel’s work was very much inspired by his time in America and Gershwin himself.

Pianist Peter Jablonski was an alert and commanding stage presence, his experience as a percussionist no doubt helped him to inject the pieces with the precise rhythmic vitality that they need. Ravel’s beautiful slow movement brimming with Mozartian elegance was carefully controlled yet passionate and thoroughly engrossing. The orchestral parts were beautifully executed too. It was the woodwind’s night to shine, from the virtuosic bassoon writing in the finale of Ravel’s Piano Concerto, to the arresting clarinet glissando that opens Rhapsody in Blue and the languid and seductive solo flute that opens Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, there was a level of virtuosity on display to rival the soloist’s.

Shelley, an understated presence on the podium, carefully shaped the subtleties of Ravel’s work, eliciting clearer orchestral textures than many performances. He was a more imposing presence during Rhapsody in Blue, both Shelley and Jablonski employed a little more rubato than usual in a magnificent, roof-raising performance.

After such a thrilling set of performances, the pace changed slightly for the closing works: Debussy’s Prélude and Ravel’s sparking yet melancholic Le Tombeau de Couperin. The strings were finally given their moment in the Debussy, providing a lush, sumptuous sound. After interesting insights in the previous pieces, the performance felt more routine but still accomplished. The Ravel piece provided an understated ending to the concert but one that continued the display of orchestral virtuosity. The opening movement’s sinuous woodwind lines and bustling string textures came to live, and the wistful Menuet had a poignant, autumnal quality. The lively Rigaudon brought the concert to a show-stopping end.

The evening as a whole felt somewhat bloated and overlong but the quality and sharpness of playing made it feel less indulgent and easier to digest.  

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