Norwegian Siblings Blow Cobwebs off Brahms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Richard Strauss, Brahms, Elgar: Mari Samuelsen (violin), Håkon Samuelsen (cello), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Alexander Shelley (conductor), Mari Samuelsen (violin), Håkon Samuelsen (cello), Guild Hall, City of Preston, Lancashire, 15.3.2013. (MC)

Richard Strauss: Don Juan, Op. 20
Brahms: Double Concerto, Op. 102
Elgar: ‘Enigma’ Variations, Op. 36

Conductors come in all shapes and sizes, and temperaments too. There is the current trend for some maestros to wait for what seems like an age behind the door before finally walking onto the stage. I suppose it all depends who is doing it; I don’t mind this so much with someone as eminently talented and charismatic as Daniel Barenboim but conductors like him are as rare as hen’s teeth. There were no such histrionics from Alexander Shelley, a conductor steadily making his way up the ladder as principal conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra. The Londoner has played with a number of the world’s best known orchestras. Baton in hand, decked in tails Shelley purposefully walked across the stage and just got on with the job without resorting to throwing himself around the podium and bombarding the Liverpool players with an ostentatious demeanor. Less is often more in conducting, as Shelley calmly demonstrated by concentrating solely on communicating appropriately precise instructions to the orchestra.

In the opening work of the evening, Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan, the Liverpool Phil responded to Shelley’s sensible promptings with a performance of generosity and considerable warmth. It may not have been a special performance to live long in the memory, but with such care taken over phrasing it certainly was a most commendable one with only the enthusiastic trumpets and trombones perhaps a little too strident.

In the last couple of seasons the policy of mainly engaging young and fresh performers with a determined attitude of wanting to please an audience is working admirably. Falling into that category were violinists Hyeyoon Park, Jack Liebeck and Eugene Ugorski, trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth and pianist Alexandra Dariescu. Tonight in the Brahms Double Concerto it was good to have the opportunity of seeing Norwegian siblings, violinist Mari Samuelsen and cellist Håkon Samuelsen, who were a breath of fresh air sounding just as good as they looked. If the Double Concerto from the ageing Brahms had felt a touch dusty and staid in past performances the Nordic duo certainly blew away any cobwebs that may have settled. Scarcely looking at each other, their sparkling playing conveyed a dialogue that felt empathetic and at one with the joy of music making. Unmistakably the Preston audience loved it all and were treated to a virtuosic encore of the Handel/Halvorsen Passacaglia played with a swagger and considerable technical prowess.

After the interval the quietly assured Shelley conducted Elgar’s ‘EnigmaVariations a crowd-pleasing way of displaying the undoubted prowess of the Liverpool players. In a performance loaded with character Shelley refused to force the music beyond its natural emotional metre yet the result was still punchy and gripping. Who can fail to adore the glorious Nimrod that started off a touch tentatively before Shelley ignited a glowing stream of beauty and oh, those glorious Liverpool strings. A sturdy portrayal of Dan the Bulldog in variation eleven caught the brass in appropriate stentorian form. I did notice in the Finale Edu’ an uncharacteristic wrong entry in the brass or woodwind but it didn’t seem to matter. Nothing could stop the excitement and dramatic effect that this wonderful score so often gives.

Michael Cookson