Kensington Symphony Orchestra

Incanto [UK premiere]
Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op.78

Kensington Symphony Orchestra
Russell Keable

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 23 October, 2004
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

The Kensington Symphony Orchestra got its new season off to an excellent start with an attractive, well-balanced concert of French music that began with a premiere.

Eric Tanguy, born 1968, completed Incanto (Enchantment) in November 2001 for Orchestre de Bretagne. The note-writer timed it very precisely at five-and-a-half minutes. This performance took seven and did sound slightly ‘under’ the desired tempo but still made a big impression. In lineage, Tanguy seems to be looking back to Roussel, the piece pulsating, texturally varied, gratifyingly luminous, enjoyably celebratory and building to a whooping and trilling conclusion. Tanguy – restrained in his scoring (no percussion except timpani, the brass just a pair of horns and a pair of trumpets) – variegates detail and intensity with beguiling skill. He seemed delighted with this confident performance, and Incanto is certainly a piece that makes one want to hear more of his music.

Olivier Messiaen’s L’Ascension, like so much of his output, is maybe an acquired taste, with appreciation allied as much to ‘belief’ as being musically convinced. At least this early ‘thirties work has the advantage of being concise; ceremonies and meditations are not protracted and enjoyed here Russell Keable’s dedicated advocacy. What a selfless and excellent musician he is, his gestures being solely for the musicians. However, in the opening movement, which may well be “designed to be heard far and wide,” the brass playing, while good, was far too loud within the confines of St John’s and seemed nothing more than hectoring, the three flutes seen to be playing but never heard. Thereafter something more hypnotic and persuasive entered, the woodwinds distinguishing themselves and the whole orchestra trenchantly attacking the dance of the third movement to cumulative fervour. For the strings-only finale, the sound initially was again too loud, and now too fulsome, if well achieved in itself, yet gradually something more ‘distant’ was established as the ‘climb’ was made with genuine and compelling conviction.

It was left to Camille Saint-Saëns to provide the most colourful and integrated music of the evening, a masterpiece, his Symphony No.3 (actually his fifth) that has become known, erroneously, as the ‘Organ Symphony’: the organ is but one member of a large orchestra. Fortunately, Benjamin Bayl played like a team member, and the dulcet, ecclesiastical tones of the St John’s organ proved ideal and acutely balanced (certainly to myself sitting roughly halfway between the orchestra and the behind-audience organ).

Keable’s conception of the work was patrician, simply one of the finest accounts of this great work heard for a while. A shame though that he didn’t use antiphonal violins (as he did in the KSO’s concert of Dvořák and Elgar on 29 June) and, once more, the trumpets and trombones produced an unlikeable steely-toned, too loud fortissimo; conversely, whenever the piano (either two or four hands) played, it was barely audible.

In music that has but two main ideas, which Saint-Saëns displays enviable imagination in transforming, and in dazzling orchestration, Keable had the measure of the overall structure and found perfect tempo relationships to sustain the two-part, four-movement structure. From the alluring glow of the strings’ introduction to the triumphant timpani-and-organ-dominated conclusion, the clarity of articulation, generous phrasing (avoiding schmaltz in the glorious slow movement and pomposity in the finale), light-fingered rapidity and some telling dynamic contrasts made this symphony a joy to listen to.

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