Ballet on the rostrum

Royal Northern Sinfonia
Westmorland Hall, Saturday 9 November 2019

The Royal Northern Sinfonia made a welcome return to the Westmorland Hall on Saturday 9 November for a concert of music by Prokofiev and Mozart under the direction of Julian Rachlin.            

The concert opened with Julian Rachlin as violin soloist in Prokofiev’s  second violin concerto, a very approachable work, full of tuneful passages and catchy rhythms. The performance was notable for the absence of a conductor: Julian Rachlin turned to the orchestra occasionally when not playing and orchestral leader, the indefatigable Bradley Creswick, indicated occasional speed changes. Playing a concerto without a conductor is a high-risk strategy as Julian Rachlin admitted at the pre-concert talk; but such is the excellence of this remarkable orchestra no over-all direction seemed necessary.

The performance of Prokofiev’s ‘Classical Symphony’ which followed the concerto was a revelation, electrifying from beginning to end. Julian Rachlin almost became a ballet dancer on the rostrum and his balletic gestures could not have left the players in any doubt about what he expected of them. Every nuance of the score was carefully drawn out and the players’ response was a joy to watch and to listen to. In this finally-nuanced performance the dynamic range went from a weighty fortissimo to, at times, a breathless pianissimo. The performance never sagged: Julian Rachlin favoured rapid tempi which challenged the orchestra who rose to the occasion magnificently. The Gavotte movement had a lovely Viennese lift, reflecting the conductor’s love of his adopted country, and the fast and furious finale brought this exciting performance to joyous close, warmly applauded by the audience.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Mozart’s early string Divertimento, written when the composer was 16, and his so-called ‘Linz’ Symphony, K 425, written in the space of three days, and one of the marvels of his symphonic writing. Again, there was great attention to detail in both performances: carefully graded dynamics, sensitive phrasing and an emphasis on rhythmic precision.

The fine performance of the ‘Linz’ Symphony did not quite bring the concert to a close. We were treated to two encores both performed by the string section: Haydn’s well-known Serenade for Strings in D Op. No. 5, with its melodious first violin tune, accompanied throughout by pizzicato in the lower strings; and then Strauss’s equally familiar ‘Pizzicato Polka’.

There is no doubt that Julian Rachlin, now Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, has a special relationship with the players and this was clearly reflected in last Saturday’s performance.

Clive Walkley