ECO at the Barbican

Sinfonietta Op.1
Cello Concerto in A minor Op.129
J.F Brown
Fantasy for violin and orchestra (world premiere)
Wand of Youth Suite No.1 Op.1a

Jack Liebeck (violin)
Guy Johnston (cello)

English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Tilbrook

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 20 January, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The English Chamber Orchestra has been associated with new music since thehalcyon years of their partnership with Benjamin Britten, so James Francis Brown’s Fantasy for violin and orchestra follows in a distinguished lineage. Brown’s profile has been rising steadily over the last decade, with his Piano Sonata (1994) and String Trio (1996) indicating a sure formal sense, together with a feel for instrumental timbres and attractive open textures.

Cast in a compact single-movement of 13 minutes, Fantasy makes subtle and evocative use of what the composer describes as ’an essentially eighteenth-century orchestra’; the limpidly-phrased opening idea providing a rondo-like stability for the thematic resourcefulness of the piece as a whole. It was persuasively played by Jack Liebeck, whose rapport with the ECO conveyed the music’s thoughtful understatement.

Those last words equally characterise Schumann’s Cello Concerto, a product of his first year in Düsseldorf, and which goes further than its more famous predecessor for piano towards a chamber-like discourse. Ideally suited then to the classically-sized string body of the ECO, which brought clarity to the often-autumnal part-writing. Jonathan Tilbrook was an admirable accompanist, not least in the opening movement, where Guy Johnston’s rubato at times threatened to de-couple soloist and orchestra. Playing from memory, Johnston initially found it difficult to vary his expressive commitment, though the Romanza was tenderly phrased and the Finale emerged with the right spontaneity – almost a continuation of the first movement, as if channelled underground for 30 magical bars.

Both soloists have careers in the making, as indeed does Tilbrook. Aside from a slightly brass-heavy ’Overture’ – more strings would have been beneficial here – his account of the first of Elgar’s Wand of Youth suites showed real appreciation of the music’s nostalgic core, whether in the Sullivanesque urbanity of the ’Serenade’, or the truly Elgarian wistfulness of ’Fairy Pipers’, with its string melody to die for. Quite a contrast with the once dangerous modernism of Britten’s Sinfonietta which had opened the concert. This effective, three movements-in-one student piece now sounds more like Ireland-ized Stravinsky than Schoenberg, but the economic distribution of themes more than justifies its Op.1 designation. Under Tilbrook’s able guidance, the ECO gave notice that memories of its long association with Britten’s music have not lessened over time.

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