Playing music by Julia Perry, Korngold and Dvořák this was another triumphant RSNO concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various: Philippe Quint (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Christian Reif (conductor). Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 14.10.2022. (BBS)

Christian Reif conducts violinist Philippe Quint and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra © Jessica Cowley

Julia Perry – A Short Piece for Orchestra
Korngold – Violin Concerto
Dvořák – Symphony No.7

Having enjoyed the New World Symphony, recently played by the Filharmonie Brno, it was interesting and instructive to hear Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony a few days later, played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Conducted by Christian Reif, a young German maestro, who from 2016-2019 was resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, this was another mixed programme of well-known and unknown music. In the first half we heard A Short Piece for Orchestra by the American composer, Julia Perry (1924-1979), and then Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto, with Philippe Quint as soloist.

There was a decent if not enormous audience for this programme of lesser-known music, amusingly introduced by Peter Dykes, one of the RSNO’s excellent oboists, and led tonight by Emily Davis. Reif, who strode on to the stage like a colossus, proceeded to dominate the performance with a flamboyant and theatrical style. Mixing German precision with American showbiz pizzazz, Reif demonstrated why he is in such demand throughout the world. Interestingly, I note that he studied at the Mozarteum in Salzburg with Dennis Russell Davies, who so impressively conducted the Filharmonie Brno in the Usher Hall.

The opening work, A Short Piece for Orchestra, dated from 1952. Combating racial discrimination and sexism, Perry was one of the first African-American musicians to make a mark on musical history. After studies at Princeton and the Julliard, she received a scholarship to work in Italy with the composer Luigi Dallapiccola, and this excellent piece was written around this time. A tightly conceived work, packing a lot into seven minutes of music, it was given a thrilling performance by the RSNO, and was an entertaining opener to the concert. Contrasting loud and soft sections, it explored the full range of the orchestra, and made us want to hear more of this neglected composer’s work. Ill health dogged her life, as she suffered a series of strokes and died at the age of only 53, but she possessed great talent, and I am sure that more concerts will feature her compositions.

Another composer who has been unjustly neglected, mainly because he became a noted composer of film scores and suffered being patronised by his peers, was Erich Korngold (1897-1957). His lush romanticism was out of fashion in mid-twentieth century classical music, rather like Richard Strauss, but he was actually a tremendously talented composer, recognised early by Mahler and Richard Strauss as a prodigy. His opera Die Tote Stadt (1920) had been much admired, and when Max Reinhardt asked him to come to Hollywood to make a film score out of Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in 1935, his success was huge. Reinhardt had been one of the founders of the Salzburg Festival and was a famous director of plays and operas. (One of my signature roles during my career was La Roche in Strauss’s 1942 Capriccio, a role based famously on Reinhardt, a theatre director with an enormous ego but even greater charisma, and this historical character has always interested me.) Like Strauss, Korngold had no time for the avant-garde composers of his day, with their atonal serialism, and his collaboration with Reinhardt on Dream resulted in a wonderful film, starring James Cagney as Bottom, and a juvenile Mickey Rooney as Puck. It is well worth seeking the film out.

After WWII, the defeat of Adolf Hitler and his Nazis, and the success of many other films, Korngold wrote his Violin Concerto, and what a piece it turned out to be! Premiered in St Louis with the great Jascha Heifetz as soloist, dedicated to Mahler’s widow Alma, and written in D Major, the key of many of the most famous violin concertos, this piece was an instant success.

This performance by the American violinist, Philippe Quint, playing a 1708 Stradivarius violin, was an outstanding triumph. This hugely expressive musician was simply sensational, playing with verve and passion, fully able to cope with the wildly virtuosic elements in the score, but also cajoling glorious tone from his superb instrument.  I never cease to be amazed at the sound this really quite small instrument can make in expert hands, dominating a huge concert hall with ease. The solo part emphasises the top register of the violin, and Quint played with a sweetness tempered with steel which took the breath away. This was playing of true world class, and his rapport with Reif was also crystal clear, the two performers exchanging glances and smiles throughout the work. The RSNO was in top form and formed the perfect accompaniment to the soloist. Korngold’s addition of vibraphone, xylophone, harp and celeste to the standard orchestra added wonderful magical sounds to the ensemble, and the concerto’s finish was greeted by huge cheers and bravos. Quint treated us to an encore of Charlie Chaplin’s Smile, drawing attention to his study of the actor/composer, which has resulted in a multimedia tribute and an album, Chaplin’s Smile.

I spoke to Philippe Quint after his performance, which marked his debut in Scotland, and he was at pains to tell me how much he loved playing in the Usher Hall, describing it as one of the best acoustics in the world. I hope that he will come back and play in the hall again soon, as this was simply marvellous violin playing.

As if this was not enough, after the interval we were treated to another spectacular performance, this time of Antonín Dvořák’s magnificent Seventh Symphony. It was the Royal Philharmonic Society who commissioned Dvořák to write his Seventh Symphony, which was premiered in April 1885. In the same year the world heard, for the first time, Brahms’s Fourth Symphony and Bruckner’s Seventh. It’s a staggering thought.

Dvořák’s Seventh is an amazing work, perhaps his least Czech-related symphony, yet still imbued with his feelings of despair at the fate of his homeland, of a country subsumed within a much larger entity, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Without making odious comparisons, there is an element of the same yearning in those who advocate, shall we say, a more strongly differentiated role for Scotland within the United Kingdom, for example.

The Seventh Symphony is a darker work than many of the composer’s other works, reflecting, as well as his feelings for his homeland, his sorrow at the loss of his mother, and earlier his eldest daughter. Beginning with rumbling murmurs deep within the orchestra, the first movement covers a wealth of emotion until the end, when it subsides back into nothingness. The slow movement is largely an oasis of calm, introduced by a lovely clarinet solo, beautifully played by Timothy Orpen, but the passionate mood returns in the Scherzo with its memories of Bohemia in the melodies. The finale again takes us through conflict and doubt to sunnier uplands, and the triumphant ending is exhilarating in the extreme.

All this was wonderfully conveyed through the orchestra to the audience by the urgent promptings of Christian Reif, who conducted with bravura and sensitivity, and coaxed wonderful sounds out of all sections. He generously singled out all the woodwind and brass soloists at the end, as well as Paul Philbert on timpani, who single-handedly formed the percussion section of the orchestra.

This was another triumphant concert by the RSNO, who deserve great credit for brave and interesting programming, and also fantastic playing.

Brian Bannatyne-Scott

First published in its original version on Edinburgh Music Review.

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