City of London Sinfonia/Moldoveanu – 14 April

Le tombeau de Couperin
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Lennox Berkeley
Serenade for strings, Op.12 *
Symphony No.40 in G minor, K550

Ernst Kovacic (violin)

City of London Sinfonia
Nicolae Moldoveanu
Nicholas Ward (violin) *

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 14 April, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Richard Hickox’s indisposition brought to the podium the graphic conducting gestures of Nicolae Moldoveanu – rarely has a conductor cued more instrumentalists in the time allotted, shimmied, or hurled himself into his task with such abandon. Full marks for commitment. Whether though the Mozart was anything more than a flurry of activity is debatable. Fast speeds the order of the day, Moldoveanu did coax some appealing lyrical asides in the ’Andante’ and made a convincing case for abandoning courtly resonance in the Minuet, which was charged through and aggressively accented; Mozart’s exploration of the symphony’s tragic potential had no let up.

Yet, while variety of vibrato (including none) mixed the colour palate, it did so somewhat schizophrenically, while dynamic changes (forte questions, pianissimo answers) utilised an interpretative ’tool’. With more than an element of pinning the listener against the wall, Moldoveanu didn’t so much illuminate the music as have it leave its corner, gloves flailing for the knock-out punch. In using the original version, that is before Mozart added clarinet parts, Moldoveanu either inherited Hickox’s intentions or went his own way; the programme note didn’t report Hickox’s preference.

Allowing the G minor is more austere as initially penned by Mozart, Moldoveanu’s exhausting rather than exhaustive rendition fell into a groove – ’authentic’ momentum and Romantic asides that never quite gelled; this stratagem palled before the end.

Similarly, Ravel’s tribute to fallen friends in World War One was not especially far-reaching; spirited and sensitive, also somewhat graceless, Ravel’s watchmaker precision was not always in sync and sometimes disrupted by tempo retards that may have signalled expressive largesse but also detracted from Ravel’s very private sense of loss. Some deft playing aside, Moldoveanu rather stressed the music’s mechanics.

The Mendelssohn was big and beefy rather than suave and elfin. Good to hear Ernst Kovacic in something not written for him. Nothing rose-coloured about Kovacic’s approach, this was somewhat strenuous in execution, and rather tightly phrased; there seemed a pedagogue standing near Kovacic to ensure the letter of the score was observed. The cadenza brought some fantasy, and the slow movement flowed delightfully to create another ’song without words’.

This year marks the centenary of Sir Lennox Berkeley’s birth. While he is too good a composer to need such timing to get his music played, at least things are gathering momentum – not least from Chandos. The Serenade, ably directed by CLS leader Nicholas Ward, is an early example of Berkeley’s craftsmanship – whether in its vigour, dark-hued elegance or hauntingly beautiful envoi, Berkeley’s amiable and touching expression makes this a gem of a piece. More Berkeley from the CLS on 30 May.

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