Review: Emotion and drama aplenty in Northampton as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra takes on Elgar work

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Anna Brosnan reviews the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton

Right from the moment of its commanding first chords, Elgar's Cello Concerto is a piece that demands to be heard.

Its jagged opening theme is heavy with a raw emotion and sadness so palpable it makes its audience sit up and listen, while showcasing the intricate extremes of which the humble cello is capable.

Listening to the broad musical range of the piece, the variety of playing styles and the expressiveness essential to making the score work, I've always thought it needs a fearless cellist to take on the challenge.

During a performance of the work at Northampton's Royal & Derngate on Sunday, it was 26-year-old cellist Jamal Aliyev who bravely led the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in his rendition of this now famous work.

The late Jacqueline du Pre did a lot to carve out the fame of the concerto, thanks to her many performances and general popularity during the '60s. Even today, I believe many people will still have her interpretation ringing in their ears when they think about the piece, but Jamal stepped out of her shadow to delight the audience with a wonderfully tender and nuanced version.

First performed in 1919, the piece's dramatic themes seem to echo the cultural and human losses seen during the First World War, so expressiveness is key and Jamal delivered exactly what was needed to expose the soul of the piece.

The concerto also exposes the soul of the cello. So often tucked away to play polite accompaniments at the back of the orchestra, I don't think any other piece demonstrates so thoroughly the musical extremes this instrument can create, ranging from disjointed pizzicato passages to driving chords.

This performance helped to enhance all that is great about the composition, making it seem even more unbelievable that its debut, back in 1919, was reported to have been a "flop".

As ever, the RPO played beautifully, led by conductor Valentina Peleggi, who was expert in guiding them in timing and dynamics, as well as the subtleties of musical expression.

The concerto was part of a wider programme of music for the afternoon, which also included the exquisitely beautiful Vaughan Williams piece Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis, Rossini's The Italian Girl in Algiers: Overture and Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4, 'Italian'.

This was another great concert by the RPO and one which clearly marks out Jamal Aliyev as a musician with a fine future ahead of him.