Chamber Orchestra of Europe

Suite pastorale
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)

Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano)

Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Philippe Jordan

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 7 January, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

This memorable concert got off to a perfect start – a rare opportunity to hear some Chabrier (whose music should be played far more often) in a performance that relished every aspect of the composer’s touching and brilliant invention and wonderful orchestration – and did so with affection and imagination. Philippe Jordan seems as innate a champion of this delectable music as Ansermet, Paray, Jean-Baptiste Mari and Jordan senior (Armin). He is not as ‘simple’ as them in approach – for Philippe Jordan invests a myriad of dynamics and colours, and a Boulez-like clarity (not least in the curve of a phrase), that might be thought too analytical for the relative ‘lightness’ of Chabrier’s music. However, the four movements of Suite pastorale yielded persuasively to Jordan’s examination. The third movement, ‘Sous-bois’, which can seem less than inspired, ebbed agreeably as the wisps of sound signified Chabrier’s great gifts.

Anne Sofie von Otter has an ideally relaxed platform manner and a force of concentration in performing that is palpable. In Mahler’s settings of texts (mostly his own) dealing with unrequited love, rejection and deep hurt – expressed through terms of nature – Otter brought a dramatic, even operatic approach that sometimes covered orchestral detail, which while meticulously prepared was also somewhat deferential to the soloist. Nevertheless this was a harmonious and compelling collaboration that caught the world-weary and resigned aspects without mawkishness and invested the more optimistic moments with a degree of despair.

Philippe Jordan’s conducting style is distinctive, either elegant or angular (depending on individual perceptions), and certainly alive to cueing detail and enjoying the interplay between antiphonal violins, never more so than in the Pastoral Symphony. This received a surprising performance in that Jordan didn’t give an ‘authentic’-influenced reading and was therefore notably distinguishable from the crowd of such ‘correct’ renditions. Vibrato was encouraged, with non-vibrato sometimes used as a striking decoration. Speeds were moderate; indeed, in outline, Karl Böhm came to mind, save he would have wanted the full resources of the Vienna Philharmonic.

As it was the 10 first violins and three double basses of the COE (sitting as a unit) weren’t quite in balance (the violins a little insubstantial and bright, which might have been counteracted by at least one more bass-player). And while the performance was attractively airy and intimate a bit more heft was needed at times, not least in the fourth movement ‘Storm’ in which the timpani was too polite although each of the strings’ raindrops had pin-point clarity. The Peasants’ dancing just prior to the disruption had an amiable step and a vigorous acceleration that contrasted well with the earlier ‘Scene by the Brook’ that had a relaxed countenance trading ‘period’ haste for beguiling expression.

With the outer movements respectively buoyant and reflective this was a traversal of the Pastoral that seemed to belong, gratifyingly, to a previous era of Beethoven performance, chamber textures aside, an absorbing account suggesting Jordan as confident, discriminating and singular, and as responsive to the bigger picture as the pixels that constitute it. The COE (in its Silver Jubilee Season) brought expertise and intensity (a couple of unfortunate horn bloopers aside) and responded to every brush-stoke required of Jordan – and he can certainly paint pictures (guitarists in Chabrier’s use of pizzicato and ‘someone’ resting blissfully on the bank of a peacefully flowing river).

A word on the audience (the concert was a sell-out), in that there were very few intrusions. At the close of the Beethoven, when Jordan kept his baton aloft for some time, there was a collective silence that spoke volumes. As Chris Tarrant tends to say during “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”: “well done everybody!”

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