Kensington Symphony Orchestra

La mer – three symphonic sketches
Vaughan Williams
Symphony No.4 in F minor

Yvonne Howard (mezzo-soprano)

Kensington Symphony Orchestra
Russell Keable

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 7 March, 2005
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

An enterprising yet approachable concert of twentieth-century classics such as Russell Keable and the Kensington Symphony Orchestra have become synonymous with over two decades. As it happened, the most often played piece received the least convincing performance. Not that La mer lacked interest in the bringing out of incidental detail, but the overall effect was of insufficient light and shade in the delineating of Debussy’s near-miraculous subtleties – with the result that the actual music, if not by definition earthbound, was expressively becalmed on more than one occasion.

Better was “Shéhérazade”, in which Keable and the players entered fully into Ravel’s pictorial flights of fancy and whimsical asides. It helped to have so attuned a soloist as Yvonne Howard: more familiar these days on the opera stage, she had all that was necessary to convey the imaginative rapture of “Asie”, as well as the more inward musing of the briefer songs that follow (and with some exquisite flute playing in the first of these). The result was a performance that did rather more justice to this captivating work than several others to have been heard in and around London during the recent past.

As an abrupt but not jarring contrast, the second half featured Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony. His most keenly argued and decidedly abstract such piece, it remains more discussed than played, and it was good to hear Keable finding the measure of its bracing reassessment of tonal argument at a time (the early 1930s) when an altogether more cut-and-dried approach to large-scale instrumental composition held sway. The highlight was a purposeful account of the Andante second movement – its sinewy counterpoint thrown into relief by some of the composer’s most pellucid orchestration, and with a demonstrable pathos brought out at the close.

The scherzo combined the jocular and the sardonic to telling degree, and if the outer movements can yield a more graphic sense of drama, there was no doubting the immediacy of the questions that are forcefully posed in the Allegro, which the finale – whatever its Beethovenian inspiration – answers with pointedly equivocal finality. That the audience was left audibly nonplussed after the close is perhaps a by-product of the work’s particular character: one that that the composer himself spoke of so tellingly at the time of its first performance.

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