For this concert, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra  paired two major works, staples of the repertoire, by Bruch and Saint-Saëns, composers who differed markedly in their compositional attitudes. Bruch died a dinosaur who whole-heartedly avoided developments in music, his deeply 19th-century style considered antiquated by 1920s audiences. He remains best known for his violin works, notably the Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor, the apex of his output which made his reputation, but left him struggling to avoid becoming a one-trick pony. Saint-Saëns on the other hand, while working within the traditional conventions of his time, eagerly followed the latest trends and on one or two occasions, as with his Symphony no. 3 in C minor, was on the forefront of pioneering music.

Jean-Luc Tingaud © Jean-Baptiste Millot
Jean-Luc Tingaud
© Jean-Baptiste Millot

Before tackling these two pieces, Jean-Luc Tingaud and the RPO opened with the overture to The Magic Flute. As interpretations go it was acceptable, but had an air of half-heartedness to it which suggested a lack of inspiration. Moments of brightness from the strings broke through the grey and there was some cheerful playing from the woodwind, but it desperately needed some depth. Moving onto the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, the orchestra seemed to strike firmer ground. Strident brass and tightly coiled strings gave an opening of grandeur which Tingaud sustained in an appealingly imperial reading of the piece. A little more nuance in defining the textures of the work would have been welcome, but there was enough precision there to suit its regimental colour. Neither work felt like it belonged with the Bruch and the Saint-Saëns though – haphazard programming.

Concert padding out of the way, Tingaud was joined on stage by Jennifer Pike for the violin concerto. One can’t help wincing in sympathy for Bruch, who didn’t do much for the reputation of composers as financial loose cannons by immediately selling the piece, the immense and lasting popularity of which would have secured him an easy retirement of fine dining and good port. Tingaud retained the broadly grand style of the Polonaise for this piece, which didn’t necessarily always suit Pike, who seemed to take a more communal approach than many soloists. Eschewing an overly flashy, self-interested performance which focused only on flair, Pike brought an elegant intelligence, striving to maintain a balance with the orchestra which sometimes overwhelmed by their sheer volume. Her playing was assured, bowing smooth and particularly nimble in her silver-toned reading of the firecracker third movement, where her accuracy couldn’t be faulted. An encore of the third movement of Ysaÿe’s Violin Sonata no. 2 in A minor, Op.27 no.2 was an unsurprisingly intelligent choice, with fine pizzicato and tonal clarity on display.

"I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again." Saint-Saëns’ pithy description of his final symphony, which had its première in London at St James’ Hall in 1886, is apt; the “Organ Symphony”, dedicated to Liszt, embraced that composer’s thematic advances, plays around with expectations of pace and chucks in a piano for good measure. Tingaud’s interpretation brought out the drama of the work. There were operatic levels of anticipation in the Allegro where the tense string-playing blended well with the clear maunderings from the woodwind. Thick, velvety strains from the double-basses added an extra layer and an energy from the brass did not preclude subtlety. Jonathan Scott’s introduction of the organ in the Poco adagio was unintrusive, a gentle low rumble across the strings that avoided dominating while still making itself known. Tingaud held together the medley of the scherzo, energetic contributions from the piano yielding to dissipating strings. Scott’s organ finale was thick and majestic, enhanced by fine contributions from the brass and percussion. What fun!

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