Matthias Ibelshäuser, Die Rheinpfalz, 30th January 2020

“First things first: combining this orchestra with this conductor [Michael Francis] was a stroke of fortune! It is rare to witness such enrapturing, rich and sonorous sounds, especially at performances of Tchaikovsky’s early work. Nothing is held back, nothing is kept in reserve, everyone is bathed in harmonies. Francis uses his whole body to guide his orchestra. He transmits his instructions clearly and fluently, and his musicians follow him and interpret accordingly. It is an aesthetic sight to behold and leads to wonderful moments of musical bliss.

Starting with Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead”, Op. 29, a symphonic poem inspired by one of Arnold Böcklin’s paintings, which the composer first saw in 1907 as a black and white photograph in Paris before later viewing its original. The effect and impression of the colors then caused him to question the entirety of his musical accompaniment. Be that as it may, as the “Isle of the Dead” begins – with softly flowing harps and woodwinds in 5/8 time – Francis allows quiet waves to roll up to the shores of the island. By the time the main theme is reprised, the State Philharmonic has managed to enchant the entire audience. It is almost magical how effortless changes in tempo and time, syncopations, and accelerandos seem in the hands of this orchestra. Even the painful and oppressive moments take on an uplifting air.

After a break, the orchestra continued this impression with its performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17 (the “Little Russian”). The nickname of this symphony, which has been oft-neglected both in past and present times, is based on its use of Ukrainian folk songs. It is a rather lyrical work, with a few elements hinting at later melancholy. Francis managed to wonderfully balance this these ambivalent qualities and skillfully utilized the strengths of the orchestra. Every last detail is done right and the instrument groups come together to form powerful tuttis, while keeping everything transparent. During the last movement – as well as during other parts – the audience was able to witness moments of pure joy: moments in which all parts of the music come together and things just seem to fit! Simply delightful!”