Kensington Symphony Orchestra at St John’s Smith Square – Holly Mathieson conducts Enescu & Lutosławski, Julien Van Mellaerts sings Kindertotenlieder

Romanian Rhapsody No.1, Op.11/1
Concerto for Orchestra

Julien Van Mellaerts (baritone)

Kensington Symphony Orchestra
Holly Mathieson

Reviewed by: Brian Barford

Reviewed: 16 March, 2019
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Holly MathiesonPhotograph: www.hollymathieson.comThe combination of an on-form amateur orchestra and an energising young conductor in an intriguing programme looked hard to beat – and so it proved. Holly Mathieson made a considerable impression with her concern for clarity and elegance in all circumstances.

Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No.1 is having a London renaissance with appearances from the LSO and LPO in recent months. It’s a cherishable creation with glittering orchestration that is stuffed full of folk melodies. Mathieson made a most persuasive case for it in an amiable reading that caught its chimerical nature and drew out fine woodwind solos, especially the languorous opening clarinet and a quicksilver flute. Phrases were carefully moulded with swooning strings and there was an almost improvisatory quality as Mathieson danced on the podium. Odd moments of imprecision and the occasional sour note counted for nothing and there was real flair and exhilaration in the closing pages.

Julien Van MellaertsPhotograph: Diana RobertsMahler’s Kindertotenlieder is one of his most integrated compositions, the sparse scoring evoking an intimacy beyond that of his Symphonies. His settings of five poems by Friedrich Rückert lamenting the death of his two youngest children have a poignancy and sense of terror that looks forward to Das Lied von der Erde. This performance indicated a close reading of both Rückert’s text and Mahler’s score. The first song’s opening oboe and horn had a darkness evoking unfathomable loss and the concluding glockenspiel suggesting children’s bells was beautifully timed. Elsewhere there was a trance-like quality and the tumult and drama of the extraordinary stormy opening to the final song was superbly evoked. Care was taken throughout not to swamp the singer and there were many notable orchestra solos. The steady baritone of Julien Van Mellaerts gave the work a stark quality that also had expressive vitality. He brought a sense of trauma to the first settings and was particularly effective in the fourth with its deranged optimism of lyrical premonitions of a life to come. He found remorse and eventual consolation in the final number with its suggestion of children at rest. Mathieson and Van Mellaerts are New Zealanders and this moving account was dedicated to the victims of Friday’s atrocities in Christchurch.

Bartók casts a long shadow over Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, music with great rhythmic vitality as well as bold and vivid colours. The KSO rose to the challenge and Mathieson was totally responsive to the demands of this intricate score creating steadily mounting tension in the opening ‘Intrada’, its closing section particularly haunting. Mathieson captured a sense of nocturnal mystery as well as furtive motion in the central ‘Capriccio notturno ed arioso’ building to a powerful climax. The Finale is longer than the other two movements combined and maybe too long for its material but Mathieson held it together with a sense of purpose – brooding, vivacious and dynamic. The concluding ‘Corale’ had some chandelier-rattling climaxes with Mathieson a cool head amongst the surrounding mayhem as brass and percussion delivered in spades, with energy and enthusiasm.

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