Kensington Symphony Orchestra/Jacques Cohen – Tam o’shanter, Peter Grimes, Walton 1

Overture, Tam o’shanter, Op.51
Peter Grimes, Op.33 – Four Sea Interludes, Op.33a, and Passacaglia, Op.33b
Symphony No.1 in B flat minor

Kensington Symphony Orchestra
Jacques Cohen

Reviewed by: Alan Sanders

Reviewed: 15 March, 2014
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Jacques Cohen. Photograph: Arnold’s exuberant Tam o’shanter (based on Robert Burns’s poem) provided a good start to this concert. Guest-conductor Jacques Cohen presided over a lively account and obtained an enthusiastic response from the Kensington Symphony Orchestra, whose members showed that particular quality of communicative enjoyment that comes from those who play for love rather than a fee. In the ‘Interludes’ and ‘Passacaglia’ from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes the latter was placed third, between ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘Moonlight’. Apart from a few brass accidents the KSO gave a more than respectable account of this evocative and brilliantly scored sequence of scenes.

So far so good, but in William Walton’s mighty First Symphony the results were not so good. The Kensington Symphony Orchestra’s mission “to provide students and amateurs with an opportunity to perform concerts at the highest possible level” is laudable, and something achieved with success over many years, and the KSO has moreover brought many unfairly neglected works to performance. And of course it is good that young players should gain experience this way.

In the case of most non-professional orchestras it is the strings that show most weakness, through poor intonation, meagre tone quality, and bad ensemble. Not so the Kensington Symphony Orchestra, on this evidence, for these sections here displayed impressive technical prowess, tight ensemble, with no sign of back-desk lag, and a healthy tone quality. But the brass section was fallible: its chording was often rough and there was bad tuning and many mistakes. These problems were undoubtedly highlighted by the acoustic of St John’s, which is unkind to large brass ensembles. Unfortunately a good deal of Walton’s scoring here favours this section.

Through his clear, emphatic direction, Cohen did his best to steer his forces through difficult waters: in the first movement he perhaps added to a shaky sense of momentum through over-emphasising the few reflective passages, but otherwise his conducting was exemplary. In the finale’s fugue the strings at last had a real chance to show their paces, and the movement as a whole was better played, but the performance overall only gave an approximate insight into this extraordinary work’s unique character and vision.

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