Victory through struggle: an exhilarating opening to the RPO’s 2014-15 season

Beethoven Egmont Overture
Brahms Violin Concerto in D minor
Franck Symphony in D minor

Tianwa Yang violin
Cristian Mandeal conductor
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

If the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra had played the same crowd-pleasing programme as part of the 2014 Proms season, then a packed audience would almost certainly have ensued. This would be despite the fact that the Royal Albert Hall would have swallowed these works entirely. But in the intimate space of the Cadogan Hall, loud moments were heard as exactly that: loud. Having attended thirteen Proms at the Albert Hall, the RPO’s 2014-15 opener was a much-desired reminder of the power that an orchestra’s sheer volume can have.

Violinist Tianwu Yang

Violinist Tianwu Yang made her London premier

This is exactly what Beethoven’s Egmont Overture demands. The work epitomises the composer’s heroic style, which risks sounding puny in massive concert halls. Yet the RPO’s resonant double basses meant they had little trouble in embodying heroic might. And every dynamic change, gradual or sudden, was brilliantly magnified.

The lusciously rich lower strings that opened Brahms’ Violin Concerto proved that a massive orchestra is not required to capture moody Romanticism. Brahms’ work is one of the most challenging in the violinist’s repertoire. It is neither an overtly showy piece designed for display, nor one that should appear magically effortless. Instead, it presents a struggle. Making her London premier, violinist Tianwa Yang’s furious entrance captured this exactly. The struggle was not only evident from her fraught playing, but by her pained face too. Her physical presence was a major part of her performance. Some might complain that this detracts from the actual music, but I found Yang utterly thrilling to watch. Her movements were natural. Her cadenza became a spontaneous outpouring of emotions, which felt more truthful because they could be read on her face too.

Meanwhile Mandeal and the RPO were excellent accompanists. The full orchestral sound in the final movement was glorious, but Mandeal ensured the RPO did not get carried away. Even during Yang’s quieter moments, the RPO were quieter still, making for some beautifully haunting passages. There was one issue with balance between the winds at the opening of the second movement. I found myself asking for the oboe melody to soar, which it did not succeed in doing.

But this was outweighed by the best moments in concerto: passages of close interaction between the orchestra and soloist. Yang would state a melody and the orchestra would reply. These moments were an impressive for their chamber-like level of personal conversation. The RPO became a single voice listening carefully and responding to their soloist.

Franck’s Symphony in D minor takes the Beethoven’s idea of ‘victory through struggle’ – as represented by the journey from the minor-key first movement and major-key finale in his Fifth Symphony – even further. Yet with Mandeal, this victory was never assured. Through the work, he created a sense of underlying energy that was always searching. But whether he would find triumph or tragedy remained uncertain. Even the jolly opening theme in the Finale was questioned by the return of the menacing theme that had propelled the first movement. Mandeal carefully controlled this moment of indecision as the music floated between these opposing themes.

The Finale’s joyful theme did eventually triumph, but Mandeal maintained the suspense. When victory was eventually reached it really had come at a struggle. It was this that made the experience so exhilarating.

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