Romanian National Philharmonic Orch/Smbatyan review – Vengerov’s virtuoisty raises the temperature | Classical music

Billed as a Maxim Vengerov gala, this programme of popular classics was also a showcase for the Romanian National Philharmonic Orchestra, the somewhat grandiose touring name for the Brașov Philharmonic. A fine, disciplined ensemble, they hail from Romania’s seventh most populous city, located slap bang in the middle of Transylvania. Under Armenian conductor Sergey Smbatyan, their robust performance grew in stature as the evening progressed.

The first half got off to a spirited start with Sibelius’s perennial Karelia Suite. The central Ballade brought out the burnished earthiness of the RNPO’s lower strings, though the Intermezzo could have been lighter on its feet. Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture was more enthralling, with Smbatyan part urgent, part cajoling, crafting the kind of imaginative and dynamic phrasing the Sibelius somehow lacked.

Born in Ukraine, composer Alexey Shor now lives in the US. Trained as a mathematician, music was initially a hobby for him. He has since made up for lost time with a respectable list of heavyweight musicians persuaded to perform his tonal, eager-to-please music. Enchanted Moment, a four-minute commission, was animated yet unmemorable, the kind of light music that went out with the 1960s. The four-movement Seascapes, for violin and orchestra, was more engaging, though its primary colours and unvaried textures ultimately palled. The poetic Lonely Sail stood out, Vengerov adding emotional spice to music that was otherwise resolutely vanilla.

It was left to Prokofiev’s genial, if bristly, First Violin Concerto to raise the hairs on the back of the neck. Playing with a laid-back, collegial charm, Vengerov delivered an incendiary performance, his refulgent line soaring high above his orchestral collaborators. Tearing into bravura passages with staggering technique, effortless in his instrument’s perilous upper register, and with exquisitely controlled trills, the virtuoso proved himself at the top of his very considerable game.

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