The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra played Borodin at my first concert in London. That was nearly thirty years ago, when Vladimir Ashkenazy was chief conductor, the Royal Festival Hall its home. How times change. Now largely based at Cadogan Hall, its focus in a crowded market has shifted away from core classical repertoire. After Charles Dutoit’s fall from grace two years ago, the orchestra is leaderless, eagerly awaiting Vasily Petrenko to take up the chief conductor reins next year. But an evening of Russian staples back at the Festival Hall was a perfect opportunity to “take the temperature” of Sir Thomas Beecham’s band. 

Thierry Fischer
© Marco Borggreve

Borodin’s overture to Prince Igor wasn’t really by Borodin. The composer died before finishing his opera, so it was left to Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov to piece it together. Glazunov claimed that Borodin had played through the overture at the piano and that he wrote down the score from memory. It’s a potpourri of some of the opera’s best themes, bursting with melody. Thierry Fischer, Music Director of the Utah Symphony, went for the slow burn in the brooding opening – without quite sustaining tension – before the Allegro sprang to life. Deploying a big string section brought ample richness to the playing, even if Fischer didn’t always allow phrases to fully expand. 

This was the second time I’d heard American-Korean violinist Esther Yoo play the Tchaikovsky concerto and the second time I’d been impressed by the poise and stillness of her playing. The tone of her 1704 “Prince Obolensky” Stradivarius is remarkably clean, her tuning impeccable, and she dashed through Tchaikovsky’s concerto with a good deal of panache. Sadly, this was not always matched by the RPO. In the charming central Canzonetta, for example, Yoo pared back her sound to a delicate pianissimo, which the woodwinds stubbornly declined to replicate. Orchestral entries were occasionally smudged or tentative. Yoo’s opening phrases of the finale really dug deep before relaxing into a joyous, unbuttoned dance to the finish. 

Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring is a good gauge of orchestral fitness and here the RPO convinced. Conducting without a baton, Fischer’s economical gestures led to an efficient account, metrical and precise, even if he never really trusted his players to run “off the leash” too much. The extended woodwind team showed character, especially the bass flute, contrabassoons and bass clarinet, while Richard Ion’s opening bassoon lament was nicely shaped. The strings didn’t bite hard in The Augurs of Spring though and there was little sense of panic or danger in the closing Danse sacrale. A very polished Rite, which needed a little more dirt to scuff it up. Beecham’s patient is very much alive though, if not exactly kicking.