ECO 45th-Anniversary Concert

Bartók
Music for strings, percussion and celesta
Mozart
Piano Concerto No.25 in C, K503
Haydn
Symphony No.103 in E flat (Drum Roll)

Freddy Kempf (piano)

English Chamber Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 19 October, 2005
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

It was in 1960 that the (Arnold) Goldsbrough Orchestra changed its name to the English Chamber Orchestra. 45, rather than 50 years on, Sir Colin Davis, who conducted the ECO’s first concert, and made its first recording, led an attractive choice of music.

The Bartók was a mixed success. The slow first and third movements fared best; both were lucidly balanced, skilfully played, and built with sureness, Sir Colin directing with discretion. But the fast movements were far too comfortable and lacked intensity, the latter partly down to the ECO needing a few more personnel in the strings for Bartók’s most emotional threnodies. Although the second movement enjoyed some ‘playful pizzicatos’, the pace was under that needed and there was a lack of visceral attack; conversely the finale was pushed along too much. Furthermore, the layout of the orchestra was not as Bartók prescribed.

There were a few tentative moments in the Bartók, but the Mozart and Haydn were altogether more confident; orchestra and conductor on home-ground. Davis brought ebullience, sensitivity and unapologetic warmth to Mozart’s grand concerto, although not as much majesty or space as might have been anticipated. Freddy Kempf, however, gave a disappointing, wholly unengaging contribution, one that lacked for colour and an innate regard for the finer points of the solo part. Lacking personality, he sounded (and looked) like somebody just happy to join in; and while his touch was discrete it also seemed contrived. Occasional moments of decoration were unconvincing, and his clipped phrasing became predictable, as did his ‘thumping’ of the sustaining pedal. Rarely, if ever, did he look beyond the notes, and moments of pathos went for nothing. The programme failed to mention the author of the first-movement cadenza; maybe by Kempf himself, of course: anyway, it meandered and the ‘cut and paste’ return to Mozart’s text was jolting.

What had lacked or displeased in the first half was more than compensated for with Haydn. A superb performance that found Colin Davis at his liveliest, and the ECO at its most incisive and responsive. From the flowing slow introduction, with prominent bassoons adding an extra colour to the lower strings, to the truculent finale, this was a wonderfully vital performance that relished Haydn’s remarkable invention. Every trill and staccato was made something of. The opening timpani solo was forte-diminuendo, its return, later in the movement was crescendo-diminuendo; it’s rare to take different options, but it’s a point of editorial conjecture, so why not.

Throughout the evening, the immediate acoustic and comfy surroundings of Cadogan Hall were a boon – although the whirr of the air-conditioning does need to be addressed: it intrudes all-too-easily into silences and pianissimos – and, thanks to Haydn, the concert was properly celebratory. There seems no reason why Sir Colin Davis shouldn’t be leading the ECO’s 50th-birthday concert.

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