Symphony No.94 in G (Surprise)
Clarinet Concerto in A, K622
Les Nuits d’été, Op.7
Anthony Pike (basset clarinet)
Dame Felicity Lott (soprano)
English Chamber Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 13 May, 2009
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
Never takes things for granted. Over the years, I have got used to the English Chamber Orchestra as house band for the Aldeburgh Festival, accompanists to great and good soloists, distinguished, dependable, but with no particular ear-catching identity. How wrong can you be? I heard the ECO last year at Grange Park Opera (in Dvořák’s “Rusalka”) – the players’ brilliant, idiomatic sound and edgy responsiveness blew me away. The string sound especially had a breadth and ‘bounce’ that gave the music a thrilling presence.
And here was the English Chamber Orchestra at Cadogan Hall, under the great and good Sir Colin Davis, in a programme well-suited to his comfort zone. It is still a wonder how he gets so much detail out of his generally broad, frequently one-beat-to-the-bar conducting, but the result in Haydn’s ‘Surprise’ Symphony was beautifully phrased and gave the music room to breathe, without lapsing into the sort of benign, sleek suavity that can be Davis’s default mode. The strings aimed at an attractive, faux-period, boxy sound, and in the Andante’s first variation, the violins floated an exquisite, decorative line to die for. And, yes, it was quite surprising that the Surprise still retains its power to surprise.
Davis’s subtle, charismatic musicianship was there for all to hear in the completely different sound he conjured for Mozart’s late Clarinet Concerto, sublimely detached where the Haydn had been vividly robust. Anthony Pike, the ECO’s principal, was the soloist, playing a basset clarinet, a hybrid instrument using the top bit of a clarinet that belonged to Thea King, with the modern basset extension made by Alan Andrews of Dunstable. The result is about four feet long, and produced a fabulously grainy, lithe and cavernous sound in the lower register. A few unruly squawks apart, Pike caught the concerto’s veiled quality to perfection, with Davis and the ECO supplying a similarly discrete accompaniment. That sense of detached intimacy, the puzzling paradox behind Mozart’s best music, suffused this performance.
There was the same dreamlike quality in Berlioz’s “Les Nuits d’été’, with Felicity Lott. Volumes could be, have been, written about this singer’s easy, natural artistry and lightly-worn technical accomplishments. There were occasional dips in that legendary, silvery bloom that makes people go weak at the knees, and the ecstasy at the climax of ‘Le Spectre de la rose’ didn’t quite have the visionary weight you yearn for at this inspired moment, but in all other respects this was a truly affecting performance, with a refinement and control that pressed all the right buttons in this miraculous, most romantic of song-cycles. The sparseness of ‘Sur les lagunes’, the sustained despair of ‘Absence’ and the brilliant urgency of ‘L’Ile inconnu’ had an immediacy of expression as much to do with her crystal-clear, completely idiomatic French as with her technical facility that went to the heart of the music, and of her audience. Davis and the ECO magically tailored their combined musicianship to Berlioz’s transparent, finely nuanced orchestral writing.
Having heard some deafening Russian choirs in Cadogan Hall, I really wouldn’t want to hear anything bigger than the ECO here. The two skinny little staircases make access and exit to the auditorium a nightmare, especially if you get stuck behind a Knightsbridge dowager, and the powder-blue colour on the staircase walls is a big mistake; it makes you think you’re in an extended ante-chamber to Barbara Cartland’s bedroom.