In a wonderful passage in his novel Howards End, E.M. Forster described Beethoven’s fifth symphony as “the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man”. The sort of Edwardian performance Forster would have heard – a large orchestra, grand gestures and an emphasis on harmony over tempi – would bear only a slight resemblance to the RPO’s. Christopher Warren-Green conducted what has become the standard contemporary take on the work; brisk, lithe, athletic, and without a trace of sublimity. There were some good things here: divided violins which allowed us to hear inner string detail; nicely rasping horns and an imposing trombone entry. But the scherzo remained resolutely un-spooky – more Tom and Jerry than E.T.A. Hoffman – and the finale was pleasant when it should be overwhelming.
The performance of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture began rather placidly, more Scilly Isles than Scottish coast, but once the strings began to dig in they whipped up an effective storm and the wind section contributed effectively to the calmer, reflective moments. It’s a novelty nowadays to hear selections from Handel’s Water Music played by a modern orchestra but the Alla Hornpipe went splendidly with jolly trilling trumpets.
Tamsin Waley-Cohen was the soloist in Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1 in a vigorous, workmanlike performance that was passionate enough but a little low on charm with too little contrast in tone between the adagio – slow but hardly mysterious – and the energetic finale. I preferred her in Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso – flashy and facile but fun.