Weilerstein Brings Enthusiasm and Commitment to RLPO Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ligeti, Prokofiev & Berlioz: Ning Feng (violin), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Joshua Weilerstein (conductor), Guild Hall, City of Preston, 15.1. 2016. (MC)

Joshua Weilerstein © Jesse Weiner
Joshua Weilerstein © Jesse Weiner

Ligeti: Concert Românesc

Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

The Liverpool Phil has a splendid record of selecting its guest conductors and the way the young maestro Joshua Weilerstein bound lively on the stage and gave a short description of the works he was to conduct the audience was soon in no doubt this would be wholehearted concert. Having recently taken up  the post of Artistic Director of the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne Weilerstein, one of the most promising conductors of his generation, demonstrated an enthusiasm and commitment that was infectious.

György Ligeti’is usually associated with challenging atonal music and it’s rare to attend performances of his works in in the U.K. The selected work Concert Românesc is the approachable face of Ligeti and the one audiences are most likely to hear. A relatively early work it6 was written in the 1950s during the days of the Soviet Union-led government in Hungary when composers were ordered to write music in a politically correct form for the people. Inspired by traditional folk music of his native Transylvania even the Concert Românesc was banned for a time. Highly successful was the interweaving of solo instruments especially the cor anglais, horn and trumpet into the fabric of the score together with Bartókian flavoured rhythms of the folk-dance. Appealing, lively and often boisterous under Weilerstein’s baton Ligeti’s folk-infused score provided an uplifting opening.

China born, now Berlin based, violinist Ning Feng entranced the audience with a glorious interpretation of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1, a relatively early work completed in 1917 shortly before Prokofiev left Russia. Here Prokofiev chooses not to exploit the virtuosic qualities of the violin treating soloist and orchestra  more like equal partners. Nevertheless it is an excellent score that should be programmed far more often.

Setting the tone for the work the dreamy, rather mysterious mood of the opening was exquisitely performed. Feng created a heavy atmosphere that evoked an icy Russian chill that made me shiver such was the intensity of his compelling playing. The sardonic Scherzo just flashed along swiftly with Fang steadfastly negotiating the wonderful contemporary writing and the mischievous sounding effects. An atmospheric world of mystery and introspection imbued the closing movement, however, the impact of the orchestral climax rather lacked conviction. Throughout Feng generated an electric atmosphere of an intensity that one rarely encounters in this work and his Stradivari (1721) known as the ‘MacMillan’ produced glistening quality of sound to his shimmering line.

For his encore Feng gave Paganini’s Variations on ‘God Save the King’ and after returning to the stage was joined by Joshua Weilerstein, who has appeared in concert as a violin soloist, in a knockabout duet that I didn’t recognize.

The principal work of the evening, Berlioz’s perennially popular Symphonie Fantastique, is frequently included on concert programmes. Having heard the score several times in the last few seasons any sense of overload was soon dispelled by Weilerstein’s fresh and compelling reading of a work that challenges an orchestra on several levels. Richly scored and ground-breaking in its day Berlioz’s programmatic score portrays the composer’s own self-destructive passion for the actress Harriet Smithson whom he was later to marry. Weilerstein’s splendidly buoyant performance contained an astute choice of tempi and dynamics, and conspicuous was the poise and precision of the well prepared orchestra that was clearly revelling in this romantic showpiece. Memorable episodes included in the sparkling ‘A Ball’ – a wonderful lilt given to the waltz from glorious string section and the enchanting effect of the dark low strings (6 basses and 8 cellos). Hard to fault was the bold and rasping brass contribution and the burbling bassoons in ‘March to the Scaffold’. I relished the witty high spirits of the final movement ‘Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath’ and the weighty conclusion was as confident as I have heard. I don’t normally single out particular performers from orchestras but the cor anglais playing was sensational all evening.

Michael Cookson