Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture
Concerto in C for Flute and Harp, K299
Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op.78
Katherine Baker (flute) & Marie Leenhardt (harp)
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 13 July, 2008
Venue: Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Ewa Strusinska becomes the Hallé’s assistant conductor this September. This well-attended concert was a taster of things to come; the Hallé’s management seems to have struck gold. The Hallé gave its all and the audience was so absorbed that one could have heard the proverbial pin drop – all the more gratifying as Strusinska’s virtues are all purely musical.
At the time of the 2007 Bamberg Mahler Conducting Competition, of which she was one of the winners, Strusinska was at the Royal Northern College of Music on a two-year conducting fellowship. Since then she has worked extensively with orchestras in Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Liverpool and the experience gained has been invaluable.
With the double basses ranged across the back of the orchestra, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet was immediately notable for the warmth and sophistication of the Hallé’s string sound (with Paul Barritt the excellent leader). Especially notable was Strusinska’s handling of the music’s joins, the hushed pianissimo before the fight-music is first heard being particularly memorable and the preparation of the love-music sensitively handled. Not one to rush her fences, and avoiding an episodic treatment of the music, Strusinska allowed tensions to build naturally so that when the real climax finally arrived it had a weight and dignity seldom encountered.
Mozart’s Concerto for flute and harp featured Hallé principals: Katherine Baker, who studied with William Bennett, and Marie Leenhardt, a graduate of the Lyon Music Conservatory. With relaxed speeds and a much-reduced string section this was a wonderfully delicate and affectionate reading of a work that can easily outstay its welcome, and succeeded precisely because the performers did not try and make more of the piece than it will bear. Baker was consistently prepared to reduce the dynamic level, shade her tone and cede the limelight where necessary to her partner. It received a wholly sympathetic accompaniment, especially the poised and lovingly phrased introduction to the Andantino second movement.
Best of all was the Saint-Saëns. The Hallé clearly relished the occasion, producing playing of élan and finesse. Instead of treating the work as a succession of highlights Strusinska took it at face value and played it as the great symphony it is. From the slow introduction to the gradual flowering of the first movement’s surging climax every note told, the emotional temperature pursuing an inexorable upward curve. There was a notably fine cor anglais solo from Thomas Davey. The linked slow movement succeeded in the difficult balancing act of being both voluptuous and chaste, and there was real fire in the scherzo, the dramatic pause before its return especially effective. In the slow and last movements there was a welcome restraint in Jonathan Scott’s handling of the organ role, which is part of the orchestra, although its initial entry in the finale – beautifully prepared for by Strusinska and the Hallé – was aptly overwhelming.