Jac van Steen great RPO concert reminds us that music in these times is needed more than ever

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Korngold, Rachmaninoff: Rosanne Philippens (violin), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Jac van Steen (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London, 23.2.2023. (MBr)

Jac van Steen © Simon van Boxtel

Wagner – Lohengrin, Prelude to Act I
Korngold – Violin Concerto
Rachmaninoff – Symphony No.2

Concerts are planned long – sometimes years – in advance. This one, with the Dutchman Jac van Steen conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, came with a very heavy dose of Romanticism attached to it. As he pointed out in a short speech before the concert began, Thursday 23rd  February 2023 was one day short of the anniversary – if that is even really the right word in such circumstances – of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. His message was a simple one: that music is needed in these times more than ever. That is true, of course. But one also, I suppose, might want to know how the message comes across. None of the works on the programme had in any sense a political one – and nor did van Steen impose one on them. But you would have been hard-pressed in the circumstances to have come away from a concert of these three pieces having heard them in performances as electrifying as we got here.

How refreshing for starters to get the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin rather than the more tedious one from Act III. Either I was sat too far forward in my seat at Cadogan Hall (row F), or van Steen pressed the RPO violins a touch too firmly during the opening minute or so. It lacked just a bit of mystery, the crescendo not quite seeming to grow as magically as this music quite needs. But it was the only fault. He is certainly not a Klemperer or a Horst Stein when it comes to conducting this Lohengrin prelude. Their willingness to bring space and richness to the sound isn’t quite what van Steen sees in this music. Their vision of the Grail comes from deep within the soul of the orchestra: the majestic cellos and basses, the ravishing tone of the highly controlled brass. For van Steen, it was all rather more emotional, rather more visionary. Brass were just slightly raw around the edge and the lower strings smouldered in uneven, but fiery, shades. This Grail motif was sacred, too, but came from a very different cloth: climaxes shook the ground, and the music pierced like arrows.

Rosanne Philippens

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s D major Violin Concerto seems to have become the in favour work for players in London over the past six months; this was its third performance. Written for Jascha Heifetz – one might wish we would hear another of ‘his’ concertos more often rather than the Korngold, the superb Miklós Rózsa for example – it is relatively rare to hear a bad performance of it. The Dutch violinist Rosanne Philippens was the exquisite soloist here. If there is a drawback – well there are a few – to the Korngold concerto it is that, if you know his film scores, it can sound derivative; with the Rózsa at least you are honing in on just one film, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Korngold’s concerto can also sound a little, well, on one string – is Korngold really going for that elusive A7, because it sometimes feels he has forgotten altogether about what he can do on the G. But Korngold was writing a work which was deliberately the antithesis of the brutal, crudely mechanical concertos of ‘machine workshops’ – Bartók’s especially. (Yehudi Menuhin would premiere Bartók’s Violin Concerto No.2 in 1947 – two years after Heifetz premiered the Korngold.)

Perhaps it never mattered in this performance because Philippens simply could not place an ugly note. The Moderato nobile was a model of purity. Although there is nothing Viennese about this concerto, her tone and colour were burnished enough to suggest that the roots of Korngold’s writing remained decidedly Austrian despite the Hollywood populism of cinema which runs through some of his classical scores. The Romance was beautifully done, too. Again, it was the richness of her playing, but this time the sumptuous glow on G. The Allegro assai vivace was vivid – described by van Steen as ‘cowboy and western music’ – but really taken from Korngold’s scores for The Prince and the Pauper and The Sea Hawk. The latter seemed appropriate although here it was Philippins’ swashbuckling bow which scythed like a rapier against the violin’s strings as she cut through Korngold’s thickets of melodies with bravura virtuosity.

Korngold reflected that this concerto was more ‘Caruso than Paganini’ – although in Heifetz he thought he had both. It’s to Rosanne Philippens’ credit that her performance wasn’t lacking in either the beauty of her tone or the precision of her bow.

The single work after the interval was Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No.2. The music critic and composer Robert Simpson, in his essay on the composer for the Penguin Guide on the symphony in 1967, scathingly described this symphony in terms close to trash – a view that is certainly unfashionable today, and probably was then. Certainly the extensive cuts in performances to the symphony didn’t help its reputation, and the year of Simpson’s essay was on the cusp of performances beginning to be played without the cuts, especially in the first and third movements.

Jac van Steen gave us the symphony uncut – although without the first movement’s exposition repeat (personally, I find playing this repeat warps the structure of the symphony and unbalances the work – others disagree; I once heard Kurt Sanderling take a lugubrious – and torpor numbing – 28-minutes over this movement). The performance he got from the RPO – lasting just under an hour – was just fabulous, however.

A reason not to the take the exposition repeat is that conductors rarely hold the first movement together for long enough if they do; it is hard enough without the repeat for many of them. Rachmaninoff wrote some of his darkest, most disturbing music for this symphony and yet van Steen never really got trapped in its gloomy world. He took neither a meandering nor a relentless view of the Largo; rather, the inclination was to bring enormous power to the cellos and basses and let them do the hard work while keeping the music flowing at a workable pace. This was a performance, in fact, that rode on its waves – it came in crests that rolled with an impressive scale. The climax, with its echoes of Francesca da Rimini, seemed to splinter and fragment with devastating force – music that sounded more traumatic than usual simply because it arrived like a juggernaut. Genuinely impressive was the final note of the coda on the double basses – so often uncertain, but here trenchant as if the players had iron in their wrists to pull their bows across the strings.

The Allegro molto was fluid, rhythmic and just ideally accented in its Dies Irae chant. It is a pity the clarinet soloist was unnamed in the programme – those 22-bars during the Adagio were a joy. One sometimes hears pure affectation here, but the RPO clarinettist tended towards a beautiful rubato (a simple, single moment in sostenuto was especially notable) with a gorgeous but even tone. There was no sweetness here, at least of the sugary kind; it just sounded right. The lower strings were again ripe and rich in their tone – swelling just enough in their climax to rise above the figure in the violins. Jac van Steen found an ideal balance in the Adagio where the orchestra’s strings sang in unison.

The Allegro vivace was thrilling. It is a movement that conductors can find difficult to judge; the tendency for uneven speeds, and sprints between the short climaxes that fizzle out when they shouldn’t, have challenged the best. Jac van Steen held the RPO together superbly, ratcheting up the tension so when the coda finally arrived the sprint to the finish line was already firmly in motion. It was full-blooded and characteristic of a performance which had been alive and vivid from the very first movement.

An exceptional Rachmaninoff Second, in a concert that was deservedly well received.

Marc Bridle

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