Dazzling Francesca Dego joins the Halle for an evening of rousing Russian repertoire

Led by the suave and stylish young Italian conductor Daniele Rustioni, it was a highly polished and taut Halle orchestra which delivered an extremely satisfying account of three Russian staples – Glinka’s Ruslan & Lyudmila Overture, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Rachmaninov’s seldom heard Third Symphony.

Glinka’s 1842 work (his 2nd opera) is notable for its use of native Russian folk music as the basis of a serious work – indeed his works went on to inspire an entire generation of future Russian composers, including Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Rachmaninov himself.

The overture itself is generally regarded as a very reliable opening piece given its vivacity and familiar melodies – indeed Rustioni embarked here with a brisk and lively tempo, his movements precise, metronomic. As the strings sang the warm, hopeful main theme there was real feeling expressed in clean and crisp playing. There was no ambiguity, only elegance. Dynamic balance was expertly judged throughout. So enjoyable was the ride, that the piece was over in the blink of an eye.

The audience sufficiently warmed up, entering the stage next was Francesca Dego, the highly regarded 29-year-old Italian/American violinist. What followed was in the opinion of this reviewer was the finest account of Tchaikovsky’s glorious Violin Concerto that I have ever heard. Dego demonstrated an utterly flawless technique (not one misplaced note nor error could be observed throughout.) The aching, yearning nature of the music required playing which covered a kaleidoscope of emotions and this was delivered seemingly effortlessly.

Luscious orchestral backing which was never intrusive, but provided just the right degree of support to allow the soloist the lead voice remained constant; indeed there was a perfect illustration of simpatico all the way through: dynamic ranged from a gentle whisper akin to wind rustling through the grass, but building to solid walls of forte when the call scored for it.

Dego’s technique is truly masterful – she is capable of Lisztian levels of virtuosity, but it is always delivered with sensitivity and a deep understanding of the composer’s intentions. She often cradled her head closely in towards her violin, as though she were confiding intimate secrets to a close friend. Tchaikovsky certainly didn’t hold back in his cadenza like writing toward the end of the 1st movement; there was a similarity in delivery to a soliloquy from Hamlet in the way Dego held the audience’s rapt attention. The close of the opening was so close to perfection as to be unimprovable.

The famously doleful, melancholia of the 2nd movement offered an opportunity for truly gorgeous delicacy in the violin’s opening passage. Soft, billowing strings lifted the soaring melody high into the clouds. Infused with sadness, the flute assumed the baton. Crucially, while all eyes seemed to be trained on the soloist, the conductor was making continual adjustments in the background so as to keep everything on track. Despite the dream-like world of this slow movement, a strong inner motor was responsible for pushing things forward.

The final movement provided further opportunity to witness the art of reflective solo exposition. Rapid finger work, plucked strings and mind-blowing panache all delivered at a rapid tempo, continued to wow those in attendance. It really was consummate skills and reinforced the sense that Dego had total control of her instrument. So persistent was the consequent applause, an encore was called for a subsequently executed.

Rachmaninov’s less familiar 3rd Symphony formed the basis of the 2nd half of tonight’s concert. Arguably less appreciated and certainly less accessible than some of the maestro’s other gargantuan creations, this was a vivacious and energetic account from Rustioni and the Halle.

Opening with a ghostly oscillation between just 3 notes, the unmistakable voice of Rachmaninov shone through in the languorous A minor framed melody. The orchestra had grown significantly in size since the Tchaikovsky performance and Rachmaninov made use of the wider instrumentation available in what is at times a cold and stark work. Enigmatic and impenetrable in places, the composer himself believed it to be a good work, but even wrote with characteristic modesty that “even the composer is wrong sometimes.” Music scholars have often put this down to a homesickness and a longing for Mother Russia which never really went away after he was forced into exile, spending his remaining years in the USA where he was treated with adulation.

Rustioni indicated real passion for the symphony – living and breathing every dynamic, feeling every note and gesturing frantically throughout. Perhaps with repeated exposure, he might just be the champion which this dusty and neglected old work requires to elevate it up and amongst Rachmaninov’s more noted masterpieces.