REVIEW: Tailleferre/ Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet Suite No.2/ Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2

For the first concert of their 2022 season, the Tonbridge Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Naomi Butcher focused on Russian Romantics, with red-blooded works from Prokofiev and Rachmaninov drawing a capacity audience to the Chapel of St Augustine.

They began with a rarity, the Ouverture of 1931 from Germaine Tailleferre, the only female member of the celebrated group of French composers known as Les Six. This attractive piece proved the ideal concert opener, a bustling five minutes of music with compact melodies and busy exchanges between the orchestral groups. Tailleferre’s skilful writing has echoes of contemporaries Ravel and Satie, even drawing a line back to Chabrier. There was plenty to admire and enjoy in the piece and in this bracing performance.

Prokofiev made three concert suites of his successful ballet Romeo & Juliet, the second of which is the most often performed. Containing six movements, it opens with the famous Dance of the Knights (known as The Montagues & Capulets in the suite) – and how refreshing to hear this in its proper context, rather than cueing up another episode of the BBC TV programme The Apprentice! The lower end of the orchestra was on fine form here, driving the music forward but never over-reaching, and Naomi Butcher found just the right tempo. It was also heartening to hear the rich tones of Nicholas Hann’s tenor saxophone when the theme returned. Juliet as a Young Girl was next, taxing the strings with Prokofiev’s fiendishly difficult writing but drawing affectionate phrasing and a light touch nonetheless.

The heart of this performance lay in the two slow movements. Romeo and Juliet before parting featured a poignant flute solo from Lucy Freeman, before revealing Prokofiev’s rich orchestral palette. Ideally paced again by Butcher, the emotive phrasing brought out the best from the woodwind and brass, as well as the composer’s unique string colours. Romeo at Juliet’s grave, which closed out the suite, had an appropriately tragic undercurrent, deeply felt and lovingly phrased by the strings.

After the interval the Tonbridge Philharmonic Choir’s rehearsal pianist, Jong-Gyung Park, took a solo role for Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no.2. As the detailed programme notes revealed, she has an illustrious background of worldwide musical experience, belying the modesty with which she took to the stage. This however was a commanding performance, Park taking the piece in her grip from those famous nine solo chords at the beginning. These were deliberately paced for dramatic effect, building the tension inexorably until the arrival of the strings who were ardent in their phrasing, the music surging forwards.

Technically Park was superb, but she was careful not to apply too much weight to her part or use the concerto as a vehicle for display, which so many pianists fall into the trap of doing. This ensured the passion essential to Rachmaninov’s writing was always near the surface. Pianist and orchestra had a strong rapport, thanks to Naomi Butcher’s keen ear, and in the slow movement this yielded a soft-hearted performance that was not afraid to linger, making the most of the rich colours and some exquisitely phrased melodies from the pianist.

The transition to the finale was nicely done, rhythms stretched for a little while but settling into a punchy account that Park once again led from the front. This time a little acceleration went a long way, with pianist and orchestra quickly aligned. This was a tour de force performance from Jong-Gyung Park, whose love for this music shone through in an account of high class and fresh dexterity.

The Tonbridge Philharmonic will return to Tonbridge Parish Church for another imaginative program on Saturday 21 May, where music from Nielsen and Sibelius will be complemented by a rare performance of Nino Rota’s Double Bass Concerto. It promises to be an equally memorable night if the orchestra’s current form continues!

Written by Ben Hogwood