Alex Prior & The Four Seasons by Candlelight

Pachelbel
Canon and Gigue
Schubert
Schwanengesang, D957 – Ständchen
Handel
Xerxes – Ombra mai fu
Prior
Eclipse Ballade [First performance]
Mozart
Divertimento in D, K136
Vivaldi
The Four Seasons [Violin Concertos 1-4 from Il Cimento dell’Armonia e dell’Invenzione, Op.8]

Alex Prior (alto / piano)

London Primavera
Paul Manley (violin)


Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 2 June, 2005
Venue: St Martin-in-the-Fields, London

London Primavera, a group of 10 strings – augmented by Schubert’s original piano for an arrangement of the Schubert, and by oboe, trumpet and trombone for the piece by Alex Prior – took a while to settle. Indeed, by the time of the encore – Grainger’s sumptuous arrangement of Londonderry Air – London Primavera was at its best.

Paul Manley is the orchestra’s founder, artistic director and concertmaster (when he isn’t the soloist). He leads by example and his musicians play with absolute certainty that his electric tempos are right, proper and playable; and they are. He is a convincing musician and his enthusiasm is infectious.

This was a concert of well-known works and opened with a spry rendition of Pachelbel’s Canon and an even sprightlier Gigue. While overall ensemble was good, little attention was given to the melodic contours of the three violin parts and, together with an intransigent cello and bass continuo, interest in this piece was soon lost.

The next three works showcased 12-year-old Alex Prior, first as alto soloist and then as pianist and composer. Prior has English and Russian parentage and a pedigree that stretches back to Russian theatre reformer Constantine Stanislavsky, his great grandfather. Prior has been composing since the age of eight and, although quite derivative, his Eclipse Ballade shows a good understanding of string writing. Unfortunately the piano part is too rudimentary to give the piece a regular place in the concert repertoire and the string parts are too taxing to be played by anything but the most advanced school orchestra. The final ‘big tune’ is hammered into banality with consecutive octaves that really added little to the moment.

That being said, Prior has only been composing for four years and with so little experience and so he has much time ahead of him to gain it.

As a singer he has done much more and has won seven singing competitions and performed at the Royal Opera and Carnegie Hall. He has been described as the “little Pavarotti” in reference to the power of his voice, which he indeed has, although, here, a very tight vibrato made his tone constricted. He clearly has a gift, though, and will no doubt satisfy the huge appetite that audiences have for young classical singers.

After somewhat turgid arrangements of Handel and Schubert it was a delight to return to original Mozart and in good tempos – though an opportunity was missed to place the violas, cellos and bass in the middle and separate the violins. By the end of the second movement the players were finally getting themselves together; the finale was exhilarating and well balanced. The audience applauded between movements, an irritation that carried into the second half and which turned to exasperation as every movement of The Four Seasons was clapped. The violins dragged hopelessly behind the beat in the second movement of ‘Spring’ and ensemble was quite ragged. A wake-up call: by the next movement things had settled down. Paul Manley extemporised and played with tempos and at every turn was skilfully matched by the principal cello and harpsichordist whose names were omitted from the programme. The whole was rounded off by the iciness of ‘Winter’ and there were no half measures here. The air crackled and through the music Vivaldi’s teeth really did chatter.

This concert would not have impressed aficionados of serious music but, on the whole, it was enjoyable and well received.

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