The Romanian National Philharmonic Orchestra (also known as the Filarmonica Braşov when performing at its home base) is clearly in the major international class. With Armenian conductor Sergey Smbatyan, collective virtuosity and emotional engagement were finely balanced - Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham, UK, 24 November 2022.
The first movement of Sibelius's Karelia Suite opened with a palpable sense of expectation, and a care over details that characterised all three movements without losing their shape. The running string figures in the second movement were more than just a faceless background, and, later, the rich, focused string tone provided an apt backdrop to the plangent cor anglais solo. A slow-burn approach to the concluding 'Alla Marcia' ensured that it came over as not just an orchestral show-piece.
Two works by Alexey Shor followed. Born in Kyiv, and now based in New York, he has worked in Armenia and Malta. Written specially for this tour, the overture-length Enchanted Moment was breezy, but with some disconcerting switches of perspective. Violinist Maxim Vengerov then came on stage for Shor's Seascapes, more a sequence of short tone-poems with violin obbligato and programmatic titles than a concerto. 'Abandoned Lighthouse' refers to a real one, near Shor's New York home, though the music itself had a loosely defined East European-Armenian flavour. Vengerov brought a vocal style to 'Lonely Sail', and a gutsy bottom-string sound to 'Gathering Storm'. 'Summer Hail' had attractive rhythmic flexibility. In all, though, and despite Vengerov's magisterial presence, both works tended toward blandness and a lack of personality.
That's not something you could ever say about Prokofiev. Vengerov returned after the interval for his Violin Concerto No 1, floating the first movement's ethereal opening theme with great poise. The central section had a firm sense of purpose, and Vengerov's scurrying muted descant to the flute/piccolo reprise of the opening theme was breathtaking. He threw off the second movement's virtuoso challenges like child's play, not holding back on deliberately grotesque moments such as the on-the-bridge, 'tutta forza' passage in the middle. The orchestra brought a stealthy quality to the tick-tock figuration opening the third movement. As so often in Prokofiev, the world of ballet is never far away, and Vengerov and the orchestra ensured that the dance impulse came across clearly. Vengerov's virtuosity was never there for its own sake - swirling scale passages, quick-fire alternations of up-bow and left-hand pizzicato, and double-stopped glissandi, all felt integral to the musical argument, and the resolve into the closing echo of the first movement had a really satisfying sense of coming full-circle. Nice outfit, too.
Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet ended the concert in a performance of utter commitment, to rival the one by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla back in March. The opening theme, associated with Friar Laurence, was played as though aware of the tragedy to come. The lead into the fight music had real tension; the fight music itself was savage and full of fury. The love music had all the tenderness and fragility it needed. In its big final appearance, nothing was held back, and the ending's funeral-march character was clearly projected.
Throughout the evening, the orchestra's energy and commitment was breathtaking. The city of Braşov is lucky to have it.
Copyright © 17 December 2022