Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra
Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
April 8 2022
Review: William Ruff
Plenty of drama and fine detail from Croatia’s musical ambassadors
The Zagreb Philharmonic brought more than music to Nottingham with them on Friday evening. They are the first foreign orchestra to play in the Nottingham Classics series since Covid struck in 2020 so their arrival signalled another stage on the road to normality. Croatia means summer holidays to many people so it wasn’t surprising to see that concert-goers were attracted to the foyer display mounted by the country’s tourist board, no doubt whetting appetites for return visits to Split, Dubrovnik and the deep blue Adriatic.
I wouldn’t mind betting that most people’s list of Croatian classical composers is short and of Croatian women composers even shorter. Which means that if you weren’t in the RCH to hear Dora Pejačević’s Overture for Large Orchestra, you almost certainly won’t get another chance. And this would be a pity. Dora was the daughter of a Hungarian aristocrat who became Governor of Croatia. She grew up in Zagreb, had prodigious musical talent as both a performer and composer and wrote music of skill and tunefulness. Her Overture has rich, complex textures and lush melodies: think Elgar with a Croatian accent and you won’t go far wrong. The audience was enthusiastic.
The audience was also enthusiastic about the playing of Tamsin Waley-Cohen, the soloist in Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. Although this is a work bristling with technical challenges, there’s nothing showy about it. It has the ruggedness and structural complexity of the composer’s symphonies so needs careful handling. This performance had a steely toughness to it – right from the opening few bars in which the violin sings a lonely, mournful song against a soft background of shimmering strings. The slow movement’s gloriously lyrical tune was moving without being sentimental and the dancelike finale was taken at exactly the right speed to allow plenty of clarity whilst never compromising on energy. The audience loved it and were further rewarded by some solo Bach as an encore.
The Zagreb Philharmonic’s conductor, Jan Latham-Koenig, had clearly prepared his forces well, tactfully restraining them when accompanying the soloist as well as unleashing full power when required. He clearly relished the opportunities for podium ballet in the final work, Mahler’s 1st Symphony. Each of its movements is a short musical drama which add up to a total vision of epic proportions. The opening movement begins at dawn, with light returning to forest and meadows, to the sounds of birdsong and to early morning sounds from a military camp. The conductor drew some lovely solo playing from his players as well as showing just how much of a punch they could pack when required. Jan Latham-Koenig was at his most entertainingly watchable in the third movement funeral march, a very strange piece, even by Mahler’s standards. As the march becomes ever more grotesque and the cortège is accompanied by what sounds like a village oompah band, Jan was to be seen bouncing up and down on the podium.
In the final curtain call the conductor rightly celebrated individual talent as well as the whole ensemble. There was no encore – perhaps just as well when the symphony’s invigorating final triumph had left such a vivid impression.
Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra
Jan Latham-Koenig, conductor
Tamsin Waley-Cohen, violin