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Press Reviews
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Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Alexander Shelley at Cadogan Hall
Classical Source
3 February 2015
This first concert conducted by Alexander Shelley since his appointment last month as Principal Associate Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra drew a very full house, doubtless attracted by a combination of the relatively wide-ranging Russian programme and the reputation this compelling young conductor is building.

The 35-year-old Shelley has been Principal Conductor of the Nuremburg Symphony Orchestra for the last five years, his contract now extended until 2019; and, last year, it was announced that Shelley has been appointed Music Director of Canada’s National Arts Orchestra (in Ottawa) in succession to Pinchas Zukerman, taking up this additional post later this year.

Thankfully, within the UK, the RPO has been the first major orchestra to secure Shelley’s services, and his new position hopefully will lead to many more appearances in Britain. Shelley’s qualities are considerable: his musicianship and experience are of the highest, his gestures are clear and economical, never exaggerated for ‘effect’, and (at the concerts I have seen with him) he conducts all the purely orchestral items from memory, using the score solely in concertos.

Coupled with his profound musicality, the results have been impressive, as we heard again here, the evening opening with Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla, not as often encountered as it once was, although it remains a brilliant piece and as difficult technically to bring off satisfactorily as ever. Shelley led a thrilling account that was full of energy, but not so much to prevent that wonderfully melodic second subject, beginning with that important F-natural in the cellos, being superbly brought off.

Alessio Bax was the often impressive soloist in Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, though the performance took a few pages to settle down. Particularly, the elusive opening chords were rather too matter-of-fact, as though the composer’s own recordings meant nothing, but soon both soloist and conductor were on excellent form – in particular, the second and third movements were exceptionally well done, and although tempos were swift, sensitivity and phrasing were never at risk.

The concert ended with Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. In the 77 years since this masterpiece first appeared, views on the nature of the work have varied, until it is now generally accepted that the extended passage of quasi-rodomontade with which the Symphony ends is the very opposite of the triumph it appears to portray. Nonetheless, these final pages have to be rammed home with all possible conviction, as they were on this occasion, concluding a reading of the Symphony overall and of the highly problematical finale that was well-nigh perfect. The problem facing a conductor of this finale is not to fall prey to the temptation of myriad tempos, for Shostakovich writes a clear (but so often misunderstood) accelerando in the opening pages that actually screws the tension up almost unbearably without overdoing the inherent pulse. In this, Shelley was absolutely spot-on, the music unfolding before us with astonishing clarity and impressive interpretative insight.

The frequent misreading of the finale can so often send a fine account southwards, but here it proved to be a wholly compelling conclusion to a reading of the first three movements that were particularly well judged – beautifully measured with each note given its full value, the emotion and character of the music given with natural freedom, the first movement deeply impressive, the rural characterisations of the second flowing admirably (leader Clio Gould a brilliant soloist), and the third movement’s profundity fully explored.

Next month in Nuremburg, Alexander Shelley will conduct his father Howard in Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. Pity no British orchestra has snapped them up to do this – or Tchaikovsky No.2, which should be right up father and son’s street.
RPO/Dutoit at Festival Hall, SE1
The Times
29 January 2015
In this all-Hungarian goulash of a concert, there was no doubt who was supplying the spicy paprika. Ildiko Komlosi and Willard White had only stepped into the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Bartók’s phantasmagorical Duke Bluebeard’s Castle the day before the event to replace the originally announced soloists. Clearly they are used to Bartók’s house of fairytale horror for both singers were on excellent form.

White, his bass perhaps a little greyer with age, fashioned a grimly impassive Bluebeard flecked by just the right amount of last-minute regret as he entombed his wife for eternity. Komlosi, a Hungarian mezzo who was clearly weaned on this role, was a fully flesh-and-blood Judith, sung with jammy tone and juicy vibrato and travelling emotionally in the opposite direction to Bluebeard as her resolve to uncover her new husband’s secrets gradually evaporated into horrified dissolution.

The Bartók also showed off the best of the RPO, conducted by Charles Dutoit with the patrician authority we expect from the veteran maestro, but — more surprisingly — drawing out some sinuous details in the process. And if there was one trustworthy guide through the chilling maze of Bartók’s castle, it was Katherine Lacy’s lovely clarinet, sighing lyrically throughout.

A pity that the first half’s Hungarian delights were more hit-and-miss. A warm-up of Berlioz’s Hungarian March (from The Damnation of Faust) was odd, loud and forgettable and it took at least the first half of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 2 for the overemphatic soloist Marc-André Hamelin to settle down alongside the orchestra. Notwithstanding some sparkling moments from Hamelin along the way, a piece that needs to zip along as if it’s a fantastical dream instead bucked and reared its way to the finishing line.
Far more than a fairy tale: Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle at the Royal Festival Hall
28 January 2015
The Perrault fairy tale is cosy enough: the foolish bride opens the forbidden door, the bloodthirsty Bluebeard vows to chop off her head, the bride’s brothers rescue her. It’s just that Béla Bartók didn’t see it that way. His short opera Duke Bluebeard's Castle is far more sophisticated fare: a deep exploration of the mental state of Bluebeard and Judith as she is irresistibly drawn through a series of doors of which the last will spell oblivion.

There are just two singing roles and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were unfortunate to lose both to illness. But you couldn’t complain about the quality of the replacements: Ildikó Komlósi and Sir Willard White. The key to the role of Judith is her changing character as she moves from starry-eyed bride to heroic fortitude to, ultimately, self-destructive compulsion. Komlósi projected total involvement in the text, the timbre of her voice shifting to match Judith’s darkening mood, with little vibrato, no harshness and hitting every note on the nail.

Bluebeard’s character also changes through the opera – from concern for his new bride at the beginning, to bombast as he displays his riches and his kingdom, to despair as he realises that he cannot restrain Judith and will lose her. Willard White made less of this variation than Komlósi, but his voice remains a delight to listen to: age has not lost any of the legato, the phrasing or the velvety richness of his timbre.

However, both singers struggled with raw volume. As often with opera in concert, one felt the lack of an orchestra pit and I found myself thinking that a bit of delicate amplification wouldn’t have gone amiss. That’s particularly the case because there are a lot of places where Bartók’s orchestration gets very thick, several of which overlap with the voices, and Charles Dutoit and the RPO were playing with plenty of enthusiasm.

It was a truly excellent orchestral performance, bringing out the full range of colour in the score. Early on, the orchestration is mostly based on a background of strings with touches of colour added by winds and percussion. It then fills out to include other instruments and more powerful combinations, reaching an immense climax when the fifth door is opened and Bluebeard proudly shows Judith the extent of his kingdom: Dutoit unleashed the full power of the orchestra, the Royal Festival Hall organ included, to really push us back into our seats. The final peak, when a reluctant Bluebeard hands Judith the keys to the fatal seventh door, was equally compelling, as was the morendo ending.

The evening’s menu was fully Hungarian, with an appetizer of Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in A major and an amuse-bouche of Berlioz’s arrangement of the Rákóczy March from The Damnation of Faust. Neither of these two performances, I’m afraid, will live in the memory. The Rákóczy March was little short of ragged and lacked the essential military swagger.

The concerto also did little to move me. In Liszt’s own day, so rare was his virtuosity that the fact that his music was playable at all was cause for astonishment. Today, countless pianists are capable of it and a pianist of Marc-André Hamelin’s calibre is able to play it so smoothly and apparently without effort as to make it almost seem routine. There was no doubting the technical excellence of Hamelin’s playing or of his synchronism with the orchestra, but the overall performance needed something more to lift it out of the ordinary – a word that could not be applied in any way to Duke Bluebeard’s Castle – both in its depth of psychology, its amazing score and in the RPO’s colour filled performance.
RPO/Dutoit review – Bartók’s portrait of marital failure chillingly realised
The Guardian
28 January 2015
Soloists Willard White and Ildikó Komlósi conquer Bluebeard’s Castle, as Charles Dutoit marshals the RPO with probing virtuosity

It is often said that Bluebeard’s Castle, Bartók’s one-act opera about marital failure, inhabits a theatre of the imagination and is just as much at home in the concert hall as on stage. Charles Dutoit’s performance with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the final work in a Hungarian-themed evening, was a fine reminder of its power to haunt and disturb by musical means alone.

Dutoit’s style, probing yet virtuosic, admirably suits the opera. He paced it with great care, emphasising the relentless quality that creates a gathering sense of unease. The climax came, as it should, with the epoch-making sequence of discords that precede the opening of the castle’s seventh door, rather than with the crash that accompanies the opening of the fifth, which is where some interpreters mistakenly place it. Bartók’s creepy orchestral palette, using persistent dissonance to indicate the omnipresence of blood, was chillingly laid bare. The RPO played it wonderfully well.

The indisposition of both scheduled soloists led to their late replacement byWillard White and Ildikó Komlósi. White played Bluebeard at Covent Garden in 2002, and it remains one of his finest roles, a carefully considered portrait of a man whose hauteur masks both the potential for violence and a deep loneliness of soul. Komlósi, a great artist, gave us the most complex and unsparing characterisation of Judith I can remember, as the initial mask of seductiveness gave way to a terrifying inflexibility of will.

The opera’s companion pieces were the Hungarian March from Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, flamboyantly done, and Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto.Marc-André Hamelin was the soloist in the grand manner performance of the latter, played with terrific weight and panache, but not quite disguising the unevenness of inspiration that characterises the work itself, its four-square final march above all.
Royal Philharmonic an orchestra that can do anything
Arts Sarasota
15 January 2015
Forget the circus, I want to run away with the Royal Philharmonic! Having heard this esteemed ensemble in live performance at least three times in my life, this marks the second time I've been sent into an ecstatic state by this orchestra. Seriously, when an orchestra as technically skilled as this plays with such unison and musical purpose it can seemingly do anything.

Pinchas Zukerman, the violinist and conductor, offered spare direction in Mozart's cheeky overture to "Marriage of Figaro," and the musicians played every detail to perfection. There was a crisp bounce to the string sound and a gracious sense of openness that lifted the heart. We've heard the score countless times, but around every turn the Royal Philharmonic delivered a surprise in high contrast dynamics and high impact phrasing.

The smaller string section of the Mozart ensemble was augmented by a couple of stands for each instrument, more brass stepped on the stage and Zukerman launched them into Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26. One of the most popular violin showcases in the repertoire, this Bruch concerto is high Romantic style schmaltz, but the schmaltz we can all love. The score provided the platform for the orchestra to deliver its most lush and glorious moments of the evening while an unflappable Zukerman handily conducted and performed the virtuosic solo part with supreme mastery.

If the big Romantic waves of intoxicating music in the first two movements didn't send you into another world, then the boisterous flourishes of the Finale certainly got the blood coursing. It was that good. Making it all the more enjoyable, Zukerman both caressed and dug into his part producing dark, woody, mouth-watering tones.

Could this get better? Indeed, yes. Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88 delivers even more tuneful color than his more famous "New World" symphony, and in the hands of the Royal Philharmonic it never sounded better as a perfect showcase for the strings, winds, and brass of what might be the world's best orchestra. I could only marvel at the perfect dovetailing of, for example, flute to oboe. When did one end and the other begin? A solo trumpet possessed a tone never before encountered. Finely honed horns cut through a brambly thicket of sound like razors.

I know this symphony like the back of my hand and I was still astonished at the seemingly fresh sculpting of sound. Nearly every moment was a fresh and delightful encounter. By the last movement, which at times feels like a drunken peasant party with wailing horns, I felt drunk myself by this music.

Thankfully, the sedate by comparison encore, the third movement from Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1, Op. 68, was like a cup of coffee to bring me down to earth. Warming and lovely, but now we all had to return to the real world. What a shame.
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