What a great joy it is to see overseas orchestras back at the Proms. And the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne looked as delighted to be there as the packed Albert Hall audience was to see them – from their formal entry all together at the beginning to their careful turn to acknowledge applause from people sitting in the choir at the end.
We began with a clear, clean account of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture with plenty of light and dark, particularly well pointed trumpet interjections and a splendid clarinet solo. Cristian Macekaru, whose conducting style is expressive without being excessive, made it sound attractively fresh – never easy do to with a piece as familiar as this.
Then came Augustin Hadelich with Dvorak’s violin concerto and the arrival of two more horns. The Dvorak – in the key of A minor which is unusual for a violin concerto – doesn’t get quite as many outings as the big four nineteenth century ones by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Tchaikovsky – so it’s a treat to hear it played live with the affectionate panache that Hadelich brought to it.
We got plenty of tuneful melancholy in the opening movement including mellifluous lyricism as the flute dances round the soloist. In the third movement Hadlich and Macekaru – visibly working intensively together – took us cheerfully into Slavonic dance territory with much high speed playing all delivered with verve and palpable enjoyment on stage as well as off.
Then he played Louisiana Blues Strut by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson as an encore and it was quite a performance with all those blue-y slides and insouciant double stopping, I’ve heard this played as an encore before and it makes a tasty contrast to a classical or romantic concerto – especially when it’s played as well as this. We got a second encore too because the audience was in raptures: Per una cabeza by Carlos Gardel arranged by Hadelich – another contrast.
We certainly needed the interval to digest all that – and put all those earworms to rest – before Brahms’s third symphony and a shift into F Major. Cue for further expansion of the orchestra with the arrival of three trombones and a contrabassoon. The opening was a bit overegged and unconvincing but it soon settled into a smooth rendering of all that Brahmsian grandiloquence alternating with dance rhythms.
Did I say dance? The Proms are some of the most wide reaching, inclusive concerts in the world and I’m always delighted to see children there. At this concert, in a second tier box, where no one else was sitting except the adults with them were two small children. They danced spontaneously and silently at the back of the box throughout the first movement of the Brahms. They were responding instinctively and in their own way (without disturbing anyone else) and it was a wonderful thing to see. I hope Herr Brahms, who liked fun and games with the Schumann children, was watching from somewhere and approving.
Macekaru took the sparky second movement faster than some conductors but it came off with incisive precision. And by the time we got to the Allegro finale he gave us some unusual dramatic contrasts both in tempi and dynamics. I especially admired the beautifully played dialogues between trumpets and trombones before the gentle, contemplative ending.
I’ve a lot of time too, for a conductor who systematically stands his woodwind principals up in turn to take applause at the end because they certainly earned it.
Finally, in the tradition of visiting orchestras at the Proms, they gave us an encore: Back to Dvorak for his Legend no 10 Op 59, lovingly played and an appropriate end to this attractively accessible concert.