This performance by Alexander Shelley and the RPO was the first in a series of four concerts at Cadogan Hall entitled, Symphonic Soundscapes: The Music of Prokofiev and Sibelius. In the well written and informative programme notes Shelley said he wanted to “delve into the inspirations, styles and nuances of these two eminent composers, each with their own incredible journey towards symphonic and orchestral greatness”. Shelley has a very engaging stage manner and he introduced the series and the works to be performed at the concert from the stage.

The concert opened with Sibelius’ The Swan of Tuonela which is the second of four tone poems in the Lemminkäinen Suite. It depicts a swan swimming around the still waters of Tuonela, the Finnish realm of the dead. The swan is voiced by the cor anglais and Sibelius uses strings and low woodwind to create very dark sounds. Shelley kept the pulse steady and the RPO’s strings created a wonderful feeling of space in the opening section. There were subtle shifts in colour and intensity and Shelley did an excellent job evoking the oppressive, brooding atmosphere. Patrick Flanaghan was magnificent in the cor anglais solo, suggesting the mystical, timeless quality of the swan but also something very dark and threatening. There was seamless dialogue with Jonathan Ayling’s solo cello as Flanaghan’s swan drifted on top of the turbid waters. This was an excellent opening to the concert.

From Sibelius we moved to Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto which was written in 1921 during a holiday in St Brévin-les-Pins. There are many very fine recordings of this concerto (I’m particularly keen on Argerich) so the bar is necessarily set very high. Anna Fedorova has claimed top prizes at numerous international piano competitions and she clearly has a big technique. Katherine Lucy’s well executed clarinet solo captured the distinctive character of the concerto well in the opening Andante. Fedorova was on top of the dizzying toccata figurations in the ensuing Allegro and she brought muscularity and a dry tone to some of the passagework, which I liked. However, I would have liked to hear more of Prokofiev’s biting wit and grotesque parody in the second subject Gavotte. There was some amazing digital articulation in the non legato section which Fedorova played even faster in the final piú mosso. The very high standard of performance continued in the second movement and I was particularly impressed with the enormous power and depth of sound which Fedorova produced at the climax to the movement. However, I would have liked her to characterise the variations a little more and to inject more of Prokofiev’s black humour – the performance was a little too straight and focused on surmounting the technical hurdles (which are considerable) and tone production. Interestingly, Shelley and the RPO brought out a number of distinct effects that one sometimes does not hear in performances of this concerto and this helped to give the music fizz and dynamism. In the final Allegro, ma non troppo the opening section had enormous energy and the interplay between Fedorova and the RPO was tight and well coordinated. In the coda Fedorova matched Argerich’s tempo (no mean feat!) producing a piece of blistering virtuoso playing which succeeded in bringing the house down. Shelley again brought out some distinctive orchestral shrieks and growls that one does not always hear but which perfectly enhanced his soloist. The audience responded enthusiastically and, having been called back to the platform a number of times, Fedorova performed Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G as an encore.

The final work on the programme was Sibelius’ Second Symphony which the composer wrote in the early years of the 20th Century. The fourth movement has been connected with Finland’s struggle for independence although Sibelius played his cards close to his chest and it is not clear whether or not he was supporting independence. In this performance Shelley and the RPO created a perfect synthesis of Sibelius’ ideas: there was enormous attention to texture and colour, creative development of the composer’s ideas and an evocation of the composer’s native Finland. Shelley and the RPO captured the pastoral mood brilliantly in the opening Allegretto. The shifts in tempo were well handled and Shelley clearly had an eye for detail in his delineation of each of the musical motifs. He and the RPO did an excellent job weaving together the fragmented themes into an integrated web of sound. There were some well calibrated dynamics from the plucked strings in the second movement and Shelley brought out some striking dynamic contrasts and shifts in colour. Once again there was enormous attention to detail although I slightly lost the sense of the overarching structure and Shelley perhaps needs to think about the big picture more in this movement. The strings and woodwind brought dynamism and striking dynamic contrasts to the scherzo while there was some gorgeous playing from the woodwind in the trio – this was a moment of rare, ineffable beauty. The RPO’s brass and strings did a great job ratcheting up the tension in the opening of the finale. Shelley again did a marvellous job highlighting some of Sibelius’ highly original colours: I was particularly struck by a section featuring brass and double basses. The RPO let rip on the big tunes and the symphony ended with a final blaze of affirmation.

Overall, this was an evening of first rate music making and Alexander Shelley is clearly a formidable musician and highly original musical thinker. My prediction is that his already auspicious career will move from strength to strength.

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