Grzegorz Nowak Excels in Tchaikovsky with the RPO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky: Teo Gheorghiu (piano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Grzegorz Nowak (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 20.6.2017. (AS)

Tchaikovsky – Fantasy Overture, Romeo and Juliet; Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23; Eugene Onegin, Op. 24 – Polonaise; The Nutcracker – Suite, Op.71a – excerpts; Overture, 1812, Op49

In an interesting interview on the RPO’s website, Grzegorz Nowak, the Orchestra’s Permanent Associate Conductor talks about conducting this body in concerts after one rehearsal only. He declares that at the start of that single session the Orchestra is already at a stage which is equivalent to the progress made by continental orchestras after two or more rehearsals. Not only is this a tribute to the RPO, but it tells us that Nowak is known as reliable pair of hands who will get things together for performance very quickly.

But he is a good deal more than that. On the basis of this concert and a previous occasion on which I have heard him, he is a conductor of great ability, an artist who really deserves a higher profile than he enjoys at present in the concert world.

His performance of Romeo and Juliet was outstanding: he secured immaculate playing, with particularly sharp, brilliant attack; he generated high tension in the Montague and Capulets episode and he inspired beautiful, atmospheric warmth of phrase in the love music. Was this the case, as we are often told in such situations, of hard-bitten orchestral players playing a familiar piece for the umpteenth time on auto-pilot, with scarcely a glance at the conductor? It certainly seemed anything but that.

After the interval Nowak directed a cheerful, highly rhythmic performance of the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, and a deliciously pointed, characterful account of seven numbers from The Nutcracker – the familiar suite, that is to say, less the opening Miniature Overture. What a wonderful ballet conductor he must be (or maybe would be) with his acute sense of rhythm and pulse. Finally, we heard a finely shaped, urgent performance of 1812 that made it seem like a dramatic masterpiece: maybe it is when it is allowed to flower as it did here. Never mind about the fireworks – they didn’t distract too much.

In the second part of the concert’s first half Teo Gheorghiu had played the First Piano Concerto. His technique was very good, as was his tone quality, but the performance had a somewhat nerveless, over-smooth quality and there were passages, particularly in the second and third movements which sounded curiously unbalanced and without direction.

And so the hero of the evening was undoubtedly Grzegorz Nowak, who thoroughly deserved the standing ovation that was given to him at the conclusion of the programme. What could have been a routine night of popular classics at the Albert Hall was anything but that, thanks to him.

Alan Sanders

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