Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Play Rugby in Switzerland

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Honegger, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius: Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Sakari Oramo (conductor), Patricia Kopatchinskaya (violin), Tonhalle, Zurich 20.3.15 (JR)

Honegger:      “Rugby”, symphonic movement
Tchaikovsky  Violin Concerto
Sibelius:           Symphony No. 1


The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra came on tour to Switzerland last week and I caught their enjoyable Zurich performance. They kicked off, almost literally, with a “symphonic movement” written in 1928 by Swiss composer Arthur Honegger who was a member of “Les Six” (which included Poulenc and Milhaud) and who wrote “Pacific 231” evoking a steam train. “Rugby” is a loud piece infused with slightly chaotic, opposing and muscular rhythms: tempi and dynamics vary, as the unseen game of rugby progresses. The strings represent one team; the brass represents the other team. The work, for me, only really came to life towards the end, until then the work had been as impermeable as the rules of a rugby match must appear to the Swiss.  It did, though, contrive to give the conductor, Sakari Oramo, a good workout.

 Patricia Kopatchinskaya was the young Moldavian violin soloist in the Tchaikovsky concerto. The conductor Benjamin Zander has described her, very accurately, as “possibly not the best violinist in the world, but the most exciting”. Kopatchinskaya was kitted out all in black, her top half resembling a formal coat and tails, her lower half, continuing the sports theme perhaps, in judo trousers; she performed barefoot, with a dash of colour from her striking handkerchief chinrest. Her playing echoed her dress, partly traditional, partly highly idiosyncratic, always interesting, never short of individuality. The opening of this concerto, sadly, always reminds me of the Monty Python sketch in which the soloist plays the piece so vigorously that his priceless instrument is decimated, as is the replacement then kindly lent to him by the leader of the orchestra, before the whole performance disintegrates. Luckily so such misfortune befell Kopatchinskaya though she shed plenty of bow hair as a result of her impetuosity. Oramo accompanied at breakneck speed. The Cadenza gave the soloist the chance to display her wit, her prowess kept the audience breathless.

 We were rewarded by two entertaining encores before the interval. For the first, the conductor, wielding a violin, joined Kopatchinskaya. It seems he started his career as a violinst and he is no mean player. They played, or should I say danced, part of a piece by György Ligeti entitled “Balada si joc”, a short piece based on Romanian folk songs: it was exuberant and virtuosic, and had Oramo and Kopatchinskaya twirling and stomping whilst they played their duet. The second encore gave the soloist the chance to make us laugh with her shrieks to accompany a piece entitled “Crin” by Jorge Sanchez-Chiong. Catch it on You Tube.

 The concert’s main work was Sibelius “First Symphony”: the Swedish orchestra under their Finnish conductor played it impressively with a blend of style and power. The woodwind, in particular the baleful principal clarinet, impressed throughout: however there were some rough edges in ensemble. Oramo placed the harp centre front stage, which gave it a prominence often obscured by other, louder instruments. Oramo showed himself in full command of the structure and texture of this early Sibelius, evoking the frozen North and bringing the symphony to an end in rousing and imposing fashion.

 A gentle “Pastorale” for strings by Swedish composer, Lars-Erik Larsson, brought proceedings to a close.


John Rhodes

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