Bloomsbury Chamber Orchestra – 20 March

Symphony No.3 in C (Sinfonie singulière)
Symphony No.7 in D minor, Op.70

Bloomsbury Chamber Orchestra
Michael Turner

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 20 March, 2004
Venue: St Cyprian’s Church, London

Formed 13 years ago, the Bloomsbury Chamber Orchestra has put on a regular number of attractive and unusual programmes – played to a commendable standard. The present concert consisted of symphonies written some 40 years apart – one long established in the symphonic ’canon’, the other a quirky but individual work by a composer who early-on chose not to conform to expectations.

Sinfonie singulière is the third of Franz Berwald’s four extant symphonies: unheard until 1905 (37 years after his death), and often discussed – even praised – in the history books, but seldom revived outside the Nordic countries. The indelible opening bars, ceaselessly modulating as they rise in a crescendo, set the tone of a work in which harmonic freedom goes hand in hand with an unorthodox though always purposeful approach to symphonic form. Most notable is the inserting of a fully developed scherzo within a concise yet expressive adagio (something Berwald was to take further in later works), while the dramatic and capricious finale generates a restless momentum sustained right through to the triumphant closing bars.

With its tautly rhythmic phrases and often awkwardly-lying string writing, this is not music to take on lightly, but Michael Turner had the measure of its conception – galvanising his players to a vivid and often gripping performance. Rough-edged it may have been, but there was no doubting the thoroughness of the preparation, or Turner’s belief in this recalcitrant and characterful work. 2006 marks its 140th anniversary (as of the Fourth Symphony), which will hopefully encourage wider recognition of an unaccountably neglected near-masterpiece.

After the interval, Dvořák Seven received a thoughtful but never sluggish performance – at its best in the Brahmsian ruminations of the Adagio and the rhythmically impetuous scherzo (with some delightful woodwind playing in the trio). If the opening movement was a shade under-powered in its unfolding of one of the composer’s most resourceful symphonic structures, the finale generated no mean dramatic surge – culminating in a roof-raising account of the defiant and fatalistic coda. Turner’s sympathy for these composers is undoubted: how about a pairing of Berwald 4 and Dvořák 8 sometime – maybe even before 2006?

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