English Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Wallfisch John Williams

Overture – The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), Op.26
Concerto Antico

Solo guitar works: La última canción; Coma Ilora Una Estrella; Cateri, Cateri

Symphony No.41 in C, K551 (Jupiter)

John Williams (guitar)

English Chamber Orchestra
Benjamin Wallfisch

Reviewed by: Gill Redfern

Reviewed: 21 March, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Cadogan Hall was a perfect option for the English Chamber Orchestra’s choice of programme. Mendelssohn’s overture took off at a sprightly pace, making the most of the hall’s acoustic to emphasise the updated dynamics, articulation and orchestration of the Bärenreiter edition from which the music was performed.

On the whole, the band coped well with the tempos set by Wallfisch – which were slightly too brisk. The musicians invested their playing with considerable energy, so that the tight wind ensemble in the fuller sections sparkled over the top of sweet-toned strings. Ironically, though, it was also the acoustic that presented them with their biggest problems, with the wind players struggling to come down to the almost impossibly quiet level of the strings in the opening section, and the faster speed causing some loss of clarity in the swirling later passages.

John Williams then joined the ECO for Richard Harvey’s Concerto Antico, a work in five movements based on European dance- and song-forms, and composed for Williams a little over a decade ago.

‘Alborada’ (Spanish for ‘dawn’) opened with an atmospheric combination of solo flute and tubular bells over string harmonics, sonically reminiscent of Arvo Pärt. Inhabiting a broadly tonal soundworld, the music utilised a gently rocking melody to gradually pick up the pace, and, from the opening notes of the first guitar entry, it was obvious that Harvey also has considerable experience of composing for film (I couldn’t work out whether the main theme of the movement reminded me more of “The Witches of Eastwick” or “Beetlejuice”!).

Moving through a second movement (‘Contredanse’) that conjured up images of Tudor courts, a beautiful ‘Cantilena’ featuring some particularly lush string-playing and notable solos from principal cellist Caroline Dale and leader Stephanie Gonley, and the intentionally lopsided groove of ‘Forlana’ (peppered with cross-rhythms), we arrived at ‘Lavolta’.Throughout, I had been slightly frustrated that, whilst Williams clearly knew the complex solo part inside out, it wasn’t always possible to hear him as clearly as one would have liked (despite sympathetic amplification). It appeared that, perhaps, the Cadogan Hall sound-team thought similarly, but an attempt to redress this around three-quarters of the way through the final movement produced some unfortunate amplifier feedback that ground the movement to a halt. Wallfisch calmly signalled the orchestra back to the top and we were treated to two hearings of much of this most technically challenging of the movements (for both soloist and orchestra).

John Williams’s solo slot after the interval was inspired programming. Looking calm and relaxed, he spoke to the audience to introduce three short “songs” from his repertoire, joking, “don’t worry, I’m not going to sing… !” First was La última canción (The Last Song) from Paraguayan composer Agustín Barrios Mangoré, followed by an example from Venezuela, Coma Ilora Una Estrella (Like a Weeping Star), written in the 1930s, and then the Neapolitan Cateri, Cateri. All were immaculately played and, aside from one or two rather off-putting loud coughs from the audience, you could have heard a pin drop whilst Williams played.

Rounding off the evening, the ECO gave a well-crafted, technically accurate rendition of Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony. However, despite obvious enthusiasm from the section principals in particular, impressive moments of ensemble, articulation and balance, and some notable timpani playing from Adrian Bending, there was a lack of immediacy and energy which left a feeling of being under-whelmed. With much of the work feeling under tempo (compared to many ‘period’ performances), and with somewhat exaggerated and distracting gestures from Wallfisch, it was a downbeat conclusion to an otherwise enjoyable evening.

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