Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Marriner Martin Helmchen at Cadogan Hall [Dances of Galanta … Scottish Symphony]

Dances of Galánta
Piano Concerto No.25 in C, K503
Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.56 (Scottish)

Martin Helmchen (piano)

Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Sir Neville Marriner

Reviewed by: Richard Landau

Reviewed: 18 January, 2011
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Sir Neville Marriner. Photograph: DeccaA little over fifty years ago Neville Marriner founded the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Now, nearly 87 (born 15 April 1924) and in fine fettle, he was leading his orchestra in a welcome London appearance as part of a tour to mainland Europe, Ireland and Scotland, to be followed by a further four concerts in London in the Spring.

Zoltán Kodály’s Dances of Galánta was given a vivacious reading. Every section of the orchestra vividly projected the work’s alternately soulful and energetic folk-rhythms, and whilst the last degree of gypsy-like volatility may have been sacrificed to sheer energy, few could deny the thrilling quality of the end result. Special mention should be made of clarinettist Timothy Lines, whose fluid and poetical playing was a delight, just as it would be in Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ Symphony.

Martin Helmchen. Photograph: Marco Borggreve Martin Helmchen (born 1982) possesses a level of maturity beyond his years. After Marriner and his players had opened Mozart’s C major piano concerto in truly Maestoso fashion, Helmchen offered abundant evidence not only of his technical mastery, but also of a deep sensibility wholly devoid of artifice. A cadenza being absent in Mozart’s score, Helmchen played one by Martin Hecker. Quite short, it shifted in an unsettling fashion between the intense and the playful and was very much in-keeping with the pianist’s overall vision of the concerto. The Andante was striking for the palpable rapport between soloist and conductor, the ever-lyrical musings of the former allied to a rich and sonorous accompaniment. In the finale the mood shifted between the extrovert and something far more shadowy, and at one point this most serious pianist – in collaboration with the cello section – took listeners into a quite dark region. This was a fascinating reading and offered further evidence of Helmchen’s growing stature.

The performance of the ‘Scottish’ Symphony was likewise superbly played and most affecting. Mendelssohn dedicated the work to Queen Victoria and one can readily imagine that, both in terms of its ‘theme’ and its musical content, the music must have more than satisfied the royal palate. The ‘Scottish’ is indubitably a heart-warming work, but, as in the Mozart concerto, darker moods frequently intrude, and Marriner touchingly highlighted them in the first movement. The ensuing scherzo was wonderfully bucolic, with vivid contributions, winds and horns to the fore. Consummately beautiful playing characterised the heart-easing Adagio, in which the string section – always a gem of the Academy – really shone. Sir Neville really knows just how to communicate the ebb and flow of this music, whose prevailing mood of tranquillity is intruded upon by disturbing tones. At the close of the exuberantly played finale the horn section found an impressive burnished glow.

As an encore, Percy Grainger’s arrangement of Air from County Derry (‘The Londonderry Air’ … ‘Danny Boy’) was sensitively performed by the strings to bring this highly enjoyable concert to a touching and sonorous close.

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