Hampstead & Highgate Festival 2006 – Festival Finale

Music for Strings
Concerto in C minor for piano, trumpet and string orchestra, Op.35
Fratres [Version for string orchestra and percussion]
Serenade in C for Strings, Op.48

Nicola Eimer (piano) & Alison Balsom (trumpet)

Hampstead and Highgate Festival Orchestra
George Vass

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 20 May, 2006
Venue: The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead, Church Row, London, NW3

This year’s Hampstead and Highgate Festival concluded with a splendid concert in the equally splendid surroundings of St John-at-Hampstead. Artistic Director George Vass conducted the 23-strong Festival Orchestra and included in the attractive programme one-time-Hampstead-resident Arthur Bliss’s Music for Strings. Given a high-profile first performance in 1935 – at the Salzburg Festival with Adrian Boult (not-then-a-Sir) conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (and, according to a post-concert letter sent by Bliss to his wife, the audience included Toscanini, Weingartner and Bruno Walter).

Music for Strings makes few concert appearances (which is certainly not commensurate with its quality, although it is a very challenging piece to play). Although a few more strings would have been welcome here, Vass and his young orchestra gave a lithe and developing-power account, found an expressive yearning (that anticipated Tippett’s then-soon-to-come Concerto for Double String Orchestra) and sustained eloquently the slow middle movement, which concluded here to birdsong and premature applause! There was some fine solo and consort playing (the two double bassists added a vibrating foundation and spot-on intonation in exposed moments). The finale became a genuine point of arrival, and it was good to hear this fine piece live in a performance that was so ‘inside’ Bliss’s ‘romantic’ language.

The piano that was wheeled on for the Shostakovich visually dominated the playing-area, its lid fully up. Worries that the instrument’s volume might prove dominating were dispelled immediately, a combination of the mellower tones of a Fazioli and the discretion of Nicola Eimer, with Alison Balsom’s trumpet rich-toned and never ear-splitting. Contemporaneous with Bliss’s Music for Strings, Shostakovich, in his slightly-earlier piece, opens up a comedy (black?), rife with quick-change, deadpan, introspective and silent-movie chase-music. Spiky, acerbic, searching (but three from a bigger cast of characters) – very contrasting episodes (some deeply touching) that make a diverting sometimes-smile-inducing whole. This was an outstanding performance – both soloists secure and brilliant, alive to contrasts (not least dynamic ones), the strings capturing the mood-swings with certainty, the final bars uproarious, with the fusillade of notes spat out with voltage and velocity.

After the interval, Arvo Pärt’s Fratres (in one of its multitude of versions) came as a revelation (to this Pärt sceptic!). Sacred, mystical, a drone bass, with metal and skin percussion marking time: a slow-moving Ancient Rite enacted in a perfect setting to mesmerising effect.

Tchaikovsky’s adorable Serenade completed the evening in a well-proportioned account, one articulate, nimble and expressive, the ‘Waltz’ light on its feet, the ‘Elegia’ rapt, glowing and touching the heart. When the opening music returned to round-off a work rather ‘bigger’ than its title suggests, Vass had something in reserve, a broader tempo – a sense of journeying and arriving at a higher level.

We weren’t done. After some words of thanks, an encore, Vass and the excellent orchestra gave a tender (and haunting) rendition of the second of Grieg’s Two Elegiac Melodies, The Last Spring. Hopefully not prophetic, for next year’s ‘Ham & High’ Festival is already dated for 9-19 May.

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