The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Corn Exchange

Olivia Fletcher 5 December 2015

What did you do on your gap year? Laura van der Heijden, winner of the BBC Young Musician title in 2012 aged only 15 years old, is currently taking a post-A levels pause to focus on her cello, performing as far afield as New Zealand and Australia. As one of the greatest ‘young prospects’ in the country, van der Heiden has earned plaudits for her technical mastery and musicality, however following this performance of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, she must surely be viewed on the same field as more experienced soloists. 

It was with deserved admiration therefore that van der Heijden was received at the Corn Exchange, and the audience surely recognised that what was in front of them was not a brilliant young talent, but a brilliant professional. 

The concert began with a smooth and silken rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet ‘Fantasy-Overture’. Glassy winds and strings characterised the performance, while conductor Christoph Koenig remained restrained and in control. Koenig’s conducting was intelligent, however did not lead to the development of a real edge to the sound of the orchestra, which is surely required in a convincing interpretation of the piece. Small tuning issues in the opening bars nonetheless did not inhibit a well-rounded performance, but one that perhaps did not warrant Koenig’s affirmative nods of approval which followed!

What did require total praise was Laura van der Heijden’s superb performance of the Rococo Variations. From the first few notes, the most exquisite sounds were produced from the cello, and Koenig worked well here with van der Heijden’s poise and elegance. The soloist’s control of rhythm was vital in the successful evocation of the ‘Rococo’ in these variations, and this was a rendition truly worth of the greats. The piece functioned well too as a moment of respite from the rich romanticism of the evening’s other works.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 is a monumental marriage of beauty and raw power, but it was the former which triumphed in this performance. Koenig’s academic conducting was largely precise and engaged, however as with Romeo and Juliet, the passion was somewhat lacking. A superbly-controlled first movement was full of gloss, while the well-shaped horn solo in the slow movement was classy. It was in the waltz where Koenig’s style truly became apparent, with the glistening sound giving the RPO charm and character. Disappointingly, the last movement seemed somewhat lacklustre and tired; perhaps this is what performing an entire programme of Tchaikovsky leads to (‘Tchaik burn-out’?). Nonetheless, Koenig reignited the orchestra for a bracing finale. 

Christoph Koenig’s ‘bed time’ sign during the final applause perhaps gives away the shattering challenge of performing almost two hours of Tchaikovsky!