Romanian National Philharmonic. Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham. 24 November 2022. 4****. William Ruff


Romanian National Philharmonic Orchestra

Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham

November 24 2022


Review: William Ruff


High drama and red-blooded emotion from Maxim Vengerov and the Romanian Philharmonic

It was a night of musical firsts in Nottingham.  Soloist, orchestra, conductor were all making their debuts in the city, as was one of the featured composers.

The biggest star in that particular firmament was the great Russian-born Israeli violinist Maxim Vengerov, someone who seems to have been at the top of his game for so long that it’s rather a shock to discover he’s only 48.  That’s what happens when you start winning international competitions at the age of 10.  Many in Thursday’s audience will have heard his classic recording of the work he played in this concert: Prokofiev’s 1st Violin Concerto.  He made it when he was just 20 under the baton of Mstislav Rostropovich.  His performance was astonishing then and it continues to take the breath away. 

The outer movements of the concerto still have the poise, poetry and equanimity enshrined on that CD but it’s the central scherzo which still astonishes: all those rapid alternations of bowed and plucked notes help to create a frantic impression, as if pursued by the orchestra.  There’s something nightmarish about the music and Vengerov is superb at making the violin seem trapped, pushing his instrument to the limits.  However, the concerto isn’t all fireworks.  The ending was wonderfully serene and delicate with Vengerov equally adept at producing an ecstatic sense of music rising into the air.

The other piece he played was a surprising choice: Alexey Shor’s suite for violin and orchestra, Seascapes.  Shor is a Ukrainian composer who wrote the pieces whilst he was resident in Malta.  Anyone suspicious of new classical music will find there’s nothing to be frightened of here.  Quite the contrary, in fact, as the suite is traditional and tuneful, much less ‘modern’ than the Prokofiev and more like film music than the normal fare found in classical concerts.  Each movement has a title (Abandoned Lighthouse, for example) evocative of the Maltese coast, although it’s hard to hear any connection with the sea in the music.  Vengerov played it like an angel, although it’s slightly mystifying that such a pleasantly unchallenging piece should have found itself in his repertoire.

The orchestra making its first appearance at the Royal Concert Hall was the Romanian Philharmonic under their conductor Sergey Smbatyan.  They play with much heart and are sensitive accompanists, even if a few rough edges were on display.  In Sibelius’ Karelia Suite rhythms were lively in the celebratory outer movements and, even in the central Ballade, things were never allowed to sag – and the cor anglais tune sounded particularly poignant. 

Also on the menu was one of the most popular works in the repertoire: Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet.  This is one of its composer’s most passionate utterances and the Romanian Philharmonic were in their element.  Sergey Smbatyan achieved a well-judged balance between the brooding introduction, the focused energy of the fight music and (above all) the tenderness of the great love theme.  As in so much of this programme the emphasis was on high drama and red-blooded emotion – for which the audience stood and cheered its approval at the end.

Romanian National Philharmonic Orchestra

Sergey Smbatyan, conductor

Maxim Vengerov, violin

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