Kensington Symphony Orchestra/Russell Keable – Benvenuto Cellini & The Firebird … Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra

Benvenuto Cellini – Overture
Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op.6
The Firebird

Kensington Symphony Orchestra
Russell Keable

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 15 October, 2012
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Never knowingly undersold when it comes to a challenge or straying off the beaten track, the Kensington Symphony Orchestra opened its fifty-seventh season with a corker of a programme and, once again, blurred the distinction between amateur and professional.

Cued by Russell Keable’s galvanisng baton, first out of the blocks was a spirited account of Berlioz’s Overture for his opera Benvenuto Cellini. Athletic from the first bars, the KSO sported garrulous woodwinds, richly singing strings, incisive brass and vivid percussion, all contributing to a shapely rendition that bubbled along with vibrant pulsations, fiery accelerations and elegant lyricism. Some pomp and a blazing final chord rounded things off.

Russell KeableAccepting the standard-setting gauntlet it had just thrown itself, the KSO went on to give a remarkable performance of Alban Berg’s ultra-testing Three Pieces for Orchestra, a very large one; no picnic for the listener either – but what a masterpiece. Completed in 1915, World War One raging, the titles of this fabulous music – ‘Präludium’, ‘Reigen’, ‘Marsch’ – are but innocent indicators of the complex notation and devastating passions that Berg unleashes (and with a sense of theatre worthy of the composer-to-be of Wozzeck and Lulu).

Through Sibelian compression and Mahlerian worldliness (I crib from Russell Keable’s spoken introduction), Berg packs so much into such a relative shortness of time while sparing his players nothing in extremes of registers and daunting intricacy; and, however rigorous and sophisticated the writing, the end result takes us through violent upsurges and emotional boundaries, but with no lack of ‘popular’ elements, particularly in ‘Round Dance’; then, in the ‘March’, we are engulfed in catastrophe.

Keable and the KSO had thoroughly laboured on Berg’s technical contests and were able to make powerful music; your reviewer was on the edge of his seat as that ‘March’ gathered its hold, details and inner workings lucidly sounded, and with the floor shaking in response to Berg’s maelstrom that takes us to the abyss. It may not have been always note-, chord- or pitch-perfect, but much was terrifically assured, and the music’s spirit was unerringly caught; and if the last movement’s hammer-blows (pace the finale of Mahler 6) were too restrained and lacked disruption, at least we heard a ‘new’ timbre (dully wooden), and there was no holding back the doomed disconnection when those scorching brass-dominated final bars get so brutally stopped in their tracks. Given the Pieces’ exigencies, the KSO surpassed itself.

Then, to complete the enticement, nothing less than The Firebird in its lavish original version (three Suites followed), first unveiled in Paris in 1910 when young Stravinsky put himself firmly on the map; however ‘crazy’ to also attempt this Diaghilev-commissioned ballet score, the 115-strong KSO and Russell Keable (nearly thirty years as Music Director) spectacularly brought it off over 48 compelling minutes. There was a symphonic feel to this reading, episodes given full value without the whole ever becoming episodic. Plenty of atmosphere, seduction and glowing characterisation were on offer; the music danced before our ears and fed the imagination. The KSO was as lively and spectral, and as luxuriant and sensitive, as required, relishing Stravinsky’s fantastical Rimsky-Korsakov-tutored orchestration. The woodwind principals and the first horn all made star turns, the showstopper that is ‘Infernal Dance’ gathered menace through stealth, and the off-stage trumpets and Wagner tubas added an extra dimension. If Keable pushed too hard with the apotheosis, this Firebird, flying with magical plumage throughout, certainly pealed to victory with a swing. This was quite a concert.

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