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Ionarts at Large: English Chamber Orchestra in London

We welcome this review by guest contributor Martin Fraenkel, from the Royal Festival Hall in London.

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Bach, Violin Concertos, A. A. Meyers, English Chamber Orchestra, S. Mercurio
With the Proms over, the London musical scene moves eastward, and the programs tend to the more conventional. The English Chamber Orchestra’s all-Mozart program featured three of his best-known works, while showcasing some of the new generation of British musicians. On the basis of this showing, the future looks bright.

The ECO claims to be the most recorded chamber orchestra in the world, with a discography of 860 recordings. The string section, however, looked unusually youthful, with most members likely not yet born at the time of its association with such distinguished luminaries as Benjamin Britten. With several of them forging solo careers in their own right, they were lively and insightful throughout, carrying forward the orchestra’s tradition with gusto. The distinctly more experienced wind section provided excellent bassoon and trombone solos in the second half.

This second half was filled entirely by Mozart’s setting of the Requiem Mass. Conductor Robin Newton chose aggressive tempi to set a dramatic, almost menacing scene, before driving directly into a particularly rapid Dies Irae. The outstanding Philharmonic Chorus sustained his ambition marvelously. Superbly drilled, they were crisp and incisive with the male voices particularly noteworthy. Their positioned on the upper tiers of the orchestral podium, rather than the vacant choir seats above them, enhanced an already intense interaction with the audience. Newton adeptly maintained this mood through the later movements. Mozart left the Lacrimosa largely incomplete, and Süssmayr’s finished movement can often seem indulgently mournful, but Newton kept the easier emotional stimuli in check.

Among a generally adequate solo quartet, mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately, already a BBC New Generation Artist and the winner of multiple prizes, was particularly noteworthy. She produced a controlled warm sound, which promises much. This contrasted rather sharply at times with the too-heavy vibrato of soprano Stephanie Edwards, which was disappointingly obtrusive in her solo in the opening Introitus. Tenor Leonel Pinheiro and baritone Matthew Stiff were solid.

In the first half, Mei Yi Foo, the 2013 winner of the BBC Best Newcomer of the Year award, gave a polished and insightful rendering of the 21st piano concerto. Barenboim, Peraia, and Uchida in their youth all established enduring partnerships with the ECO, but Foo was certainly not overawed by this heritage. Warmly applauded by both audience and orchestra, on this showing she is likely to be invited back. Not afraid to take some risks with expression in the first movement, she displayed some lovely crisp playing, respecting the classical tradition and not seeking to impose herself on the orchestra. Only in the second Andante movement, the emotional core of the piece, did she not quite explore the intensity often lurking in later Mozart.

The overture to The Magic Flute opened the concert. Newton’s slow, sombre introduction seemed to place the comic opera closer to Don Giovanni than the frivolity of The Marriage of Figaro.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I attended this performance and overall enjoyed my evening out . I have to say that the comments about the soprano soloist are completely unfair. As a professional musician myself I felt she was a standout performer on the night. The other soloists seemed to be just running through the motions as far as I was concerned yet the soprano showed true dedication to the text and expressed herself with a gloriously passionate rendition . Her voice was the best projected also. I had heard through the grapevine it was her debut at the RFH so her first phrase was merely a settling in to the new environment perhaps ? So to solely focus on that is rather unfair as she was superb overall.