Sinfonietta Op.1 Schumann
Cello Concerto in A minor Op.129 J.F Brown
Fantasy for violin and orchestra (world premiere) Elgar
Wand of Youth Suite No.1 Op.1a
Jack Liebeck (violin)
Guy Johnston (cello)
English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Tilbrook
ECO at the Barbican
Saturday, January 20, 2001 Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
The English Chamber Orchestra has been associated with new music since the
halcyon years of their partnership with Benjamin Britten, so James Francis Browns Fantasy for violin and orchestra follows in a distinguished lineage. Browns profile has been rising steadily over the last decade, with his Piano Sonata (1994) and String Trio (1996) indicating a sure formal sense, together with a feel for instrumental timbres and attractive open textures.
Cast in a compact single-movement of 13 minutes, Fantasy makes subtle and evocative use of what the composer describes as an essentially eighteenth-century orchestra; the limpidly-phrased opening idea providing a rondo-like stability for the thematic resourcefulness of the piece as a whole. It was persuasively played by Jack Liebeck, whose rapport with the ECO conveyed the musics thoughtful understatement.
Those last words equally characterise Schumanns Cello Concerto, a product of his first year in Düsseldorf, and which goes further than its more famous predecessor for piano towards a chamber-like discourse. Ideally suited then to the classically-sized string body of the ECO, which brought clarity to the often-autumnal part-writing. Jonathan Tilbrook was an admirable accompanist, not least in the opening movement, where Guy Johnstons rubato at times threatened to de-couple soloist and orchestra. Playing from memory, Johnston initially found it difficult to vary his expressive commitment, though the Romanza was tenderly phrased and the Finale emerged with the right spontaneity - almost a continuation of the first movement, as if channelled underground for 30 magical bars.
Both soloists have careers in the making, as indeed does Tilbrook. Aside from a slightly brass-heavy Overture - more strings would have been beneficial here - his account of the first of Elgars Wand of Youth suites showed real appreciation of the musics nostalgic core, whether in the Sullivanesque urbanity of the Serenade, or the truly Elgarian wistfulness of Fairy Pipers, with its string melody to die for. Quite a contrast with the once dangerous modernism of Brittens Sinfonietta which had opened the concert. This effective, three movements-in-one student piece now sounds more like Ireland-ized Stravinsky than Schoenberg, but the economic distribution of themes more than justifies its Op.1 designation. Under Tilbrooks able guidance, the ECO gave notice that memories of its long association with Brittens music have not lessened over time.