Beethoven Chamber Orchestra at Rosslyn Hill Chapel

Divertimento in B flat, K137
Piano Concerto in F, Hob XVII:3
Ancient Airs and Dances – Suite No.3
Serenade for Strings, Op.20
Les Vendredis Polka

Beethoven Chamber Orchestra
Santiago Mantas (piano)
Patrick Noronha [Respighi]

Reviewed by: Jens Fredriksen

Reviewed: 9 July, 2011
Venue: Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, London

The Beethoven Chamber Orchestra, a small professional group, gives concerts with reasonable frequency at Rosslyn Hill and elsewhere in London. Its members have worked closely with Santiago Mantas (conductor, pianist, arranger and composer) and their exact response to his clear directions was evident throughout.

Rosslyn Hill Chapel – a much-favoured recording venue – has an acoustic with just the right degree of resonance for this size of ensemble, evident from the start with a lively reading of the opening Allegro di molto of Mozart’s Divertimento – the second of the three composed in Salzburg in 1772. Some Mozart lovers will already have raised an eyebrow because although the companion works (K136 & K138) are in the familiar fast-slow-fast form, printed editions of K137 place its Andante movement first. The slow-fast-fast layout is odd and perhaps detracts from the work’s effectiveness. I do not know what documentary evidence justified this performance’s re-ordering but I am certainly convinced by it.

Haydn’s Piano Concerto in F encourages musicological discussion too. Probably composed in 1765 it was published in 1787 by Le Duc of Paris and in that old edition a bold Roman III heads the keyboard part in parallel with Hoboken’s later numbering. In the Le Duc edition it is for keyboard and strings although some musicologists suggest there may be horns ad lib. Neglected for years it re-emerged in the 1960s and was first recorded by Heinz Schroeter for Supraphon. This is an interesting link because Santiago Mantas was a pupil of Schroeter and his performance at Rosslyn Hill showed great authority. Le Duc published this piece as a work for harpsichord or pianoforte. Mantas recognised the early keyboard style using the sustaining pedal very sparingly, employing a short stick for the piano lid and achieving a crisp brightness throughout and enjoyed a close rapport with the orchestra. Schroeter composed cadenzas for this work. Mantas used one for the first movement and his own for the second. Both were appropriate and took the same approach – a fashioning of the main theme via various related keys meaning that they were very much in Haydn Style.

Patrick Noronha’s view of Respighi’s Suite underlined that this is a 20th-century composer’s take on old music. In particular, although most of the movements are based on dances of a long-ago period, the approach understates the underlying rhythms; a good example of melody overriding rhythm is found in the approach to Respighi’s reference to ‘Siciliana’ because the characteristic shortened second note of this dance was smoothed into the general flow. Tempos were slow and brief melodic statements were often rounded-off by slight further slowing – uncharacteristic of the dance genre but very much part of this interpretation. The orchestra provided a suitably full tone for this relaxed reading.

Elgar under the direction of Mantas showed a very different orchestral style: entries of the individual sections were boldly clarified and dynamic contrasts were subtly attended to. The central Larghetto in particular was given a moving reading, the young players successfully evoking nostalgia for a distant age which they could never have experienced. The long pause before applause at the end of the finale suggests that the small but attentive audience was aware that this was a notable interpretation.

The Glazunov/Liadov Polka ‘Les Vendredis’ provided a delightful ending to the evening. A charming piece with a remarkable dancing middle section that sounds like another Pizzicato Polka although perhaps a French version of it rather than Viennese. This piece has sometimes been used as an encore by string quartets but the orchestral version made a splendid impact and a suitable close to a much-varied evening.

An enjoyable concert, leaving an abiding memory of the outstanding performance of the Elgar. I look forward to hearing the Beethoven Chamber Orchestra again when the wind section joins this capable string band.

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