English Chamber Orchestra/Colin Davis at Queen Elizabeth Hall [The Banks of Green Willow … The Lark Ascending … Posthorn Serenade … Plamena Mangova plays K482]

The Banks of Green Willow
Vaughan Williams
The Lark Ascending
Piano Concerto No.22 in E flat, K482
Serenade in D, K320 (Posthorn)

Stephanie Gonley (violin)

Plamena Mangova (piano)

English Chamber Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 19 May, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Sir Colin Davis. Photograph: Alberto Venzago / LSOSir Colin Davis and the English Chamber Orchestra are decades-old musical friends. He is now its Conductor Emeritus. They were here reunited in a programme heavily weighted in favour of Davis’s beloved Mozart. By contrast the concert’s opening works are gems of English pastoralism and folksong influence. George Butterworth and Ralph Vaughan Williams were friends, the former suggesting what would become the latter’s A London Symphony, which its composer dedicated to Butterworth’s memory when he was killed in action (at the Somme) in World War One at the age of 31. The Banks of Green Willow (once we got to it – the concert’s start was delayed due to “technical problems”, but we were left no better informed than that) can take a larger number of strings than the ECO mustered, but Colin Davis and the musicians caught with affection its wistfulness, intensifying rather than agitating its middle section. (After these five minutes, harpist Alison Nichols was finished for the night!) There might have been a case for segueing into The Lark Ascending rather than having Stephanie Gonley vacate her leader’s seat (from where the violin part would have carried effortlessly) to then return as soloist. Nevertheless, this was a richly expressive rendition from her, sensitively and subtly accompanied – a rapt and soulful performance of music that is rather more than a bird’s-eye view of the countryside (inspired by George Meredith’s poem); indeed it is a piece of musical perfection and deep humanity.

One of Mozart grandest piano concertos introduced the Bulgarian Plamena Mangova. She played with crispness and style, eminently musical if, over the course of the three movements, a little too similarly, and with some fortissimos that while not too loud were a little dominant in context. The ECO and Davis found the festivity of the opening movement, the soulful beauty and contrasts of the slow one, and the wit and point of the finale, Mangova matching this with vivid flourishes, clear-cut phrasing and some thoughtful dynamic variance. No mention was made of her cadenzas; possibly Hummel in the first movement and ‘no idea’ in the finale! After which there was a hiatus in the final stretch, but all kept their heads. Mangova offered an incongruous encore, the third and last of Ginastera’s Danzas Argentinas, entitled ‘Danza del Gaucho’, a pounding toccata, its markings of furiosamente, violente and salvaggio (wild) given full vent by Mangova, literally with flying colours – one could see the Pampas.

Woodwind-playing had been a poetic delight throughout the concerto, these players coming even more into their own in the ‘Posthorn’ Serenade, given a quite lovely performance, Colin Davis a master of the suspensions, build-ups and releases of the symphony-like first movement. Music that is an ‘elixir of life’ for this conductor, Davis led a lively and meaningful performance of the Serenade’s seven movements, a very happy and productive forty minutes’ worth, with springy rhythms, a fine blaze of trumpets and timpani, and neat and attentive string-playing, the sacred depths of the fifth-movement Andantino fully plumbed. In the second Minuet, the piccolo solo might be thought over-decorated and Andrew Crowley had a good stab playing the instrument that gives the work its name. All in all, the performance showed the relationship between the English Chamber Orchestra and Colin Davis remains undimmed.

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