City of London Sinfonia/Hickox – 30 May

Lennox Berkeley
Divertimento in B flat, Op.18
Piano Concerto in G
Poulenc orch. Lennox Berkeley
Flute Sonata
Symphony No.41 in C, K.551 (Jupiter)

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)

Karen Jones (flute)

City of London Sinfonia
Richard Hickox

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 30 May, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

After the interval, the Principal of Brunel University conferred an Honorary MusD on Richard Hickox in recognition of his services to music. I’d have conferred it on the basis of his Jupiter alone.

The Berkeley and Ravel pieces each have a particular idiom, missed in the playing here.

The Divertimento’s Prelude has a mercurial, restless wit, reminiscent of John Donne or Poulenc. The Nocturne distantly recalls a pastorale with much dainty, lyrical treading across a rustic field. The Scherzo is darker – and too long. The Finale’s wit pointed towards Façade – but is less joyous or inventive than Walton. The bulk of the work is workaday in the manner of a Hindemithian daily chore – as was the rendition throughout.

The Ravel performance was quite extraordinarily inapt. Aristocratic elegance and delicacy were absent – as was rapier steel. The first movement’s nods towards Gershwin were inconsequential and rushed – with none of Ravel’s unexpectedly hot-blooded acclaim. In the slow movement, Jean-Yves Thibaudet dropped his brilliant if ultimately empty technique in favour of a romantic narcissism more appropriate to the 1890s than the late 1920s. Thus he doubly denied us the exquisite delight of Ravel’s original.

The interval wrought some kind of miracle.

Lennox Berkeley’s orchestration of Poulenc is deft, droll and sharp. For the most part, this was a successful foil to the flute playing. The writing for strings, though, is self-effacingly luscious in the tradition of Vaughan Williams and Bax – a little too ’English’. Karen Jones is a virtuoso and a musician – a rare bird. She tossed off fiendishly difficult runs and flourishes with engaged aplomb. More, she gave her virtuosity a French character. Still more, her rapport with Poulenc’s very particular, awkward, quirky Frenchness is consummate – ranging from his quicksilver skittering to those brief poignant visits to lone melancholic pools, ruffled gently by each passing breeze.

With Mozart, the City of London Sinfonia came truly into its own – much as the London Mozart Players used to under Harry Blech. The strings suddenly became clear and astringent, alert and vigorous. With surging confidence, the orchestra broke into a different sonic world.

The playing gained a clear, articulated momentum – thrusting and assured. Phrases were clearly and confidently identified and regulated. Blissfully and unusually, they related exactly, precisely and knowingly to what came before and what was about to arrive. As a result, each phrase blazed resplendently – a jewel set amongst other jewels.

A prime instance was the opening to the slow movement – a flowing melody punctuated twice by a loud chord. Oh, the number of performances that, having nothing better to do, ape Haydn’s ’Surprise’! Here the chords were part of the continuing momentum. Their volume was perfectly judged.And the preceding silence was an umbilical cord – part of a living, breathing, connecting pulse.

We rarely hear Mozart playing of this calibre, commitment and discrimination.

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