Kensington Symphony Orchestra

Slavonic Dances – First Set, Op.46
Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55

Kensington Symphony Orchestra
Russell Keable

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 29 June, 2004
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

The tube strike that had started an hour before this concert seemed to have no effect – St John’s was virtually full, the audience a model one: there were hardly any noisy distractions, no applause between movements, and there was a palpable sense of concentration.

The Kensington Symphony Orchestra has been around since 1956, and Russell Keable has conducted it for the last eighteen years. This attractive concert proved a great success. It’s rare to hear either set Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances given complete – any one is wonderful encore material though – and playing the first eight as the concert’s first half worked a treat. Having adjusted to St John’s curious acoustic, one overly fulsome yet curiously distant, then there was much to enjoy in Keable’s affectionate conducting. The orchestra responded with a spring in its step, the woodwinds wholly delightful. Playing these eight dances straight through reminded of Dvořák’s variety; a genuine cycle of Bohemian dance-forms emerged. In particular, Keable found the mood of each one in a wholly natural way, he picked-out the ‘village band’ details of scoring with relish, and allowed the composer’s soulful re-branding of his heritage easeful and heartfelt expression.

This concert was a thoughtful combination of music combining ‘homeland’ aspects and European (German) influence. It could be argued that a smaller orchestra benefits Dvořák’s Dances (as Harnoncourt has shown); there were moments here when the textures sounded somewhat thick. However, the ample resources of the KSO and St John’s acoustic combined for an opulent account of Elgar’s Symphony No.1 that was engrossing. Russell Keable saw the work whole, a structure-conscious reading in which tempo changes were seamless, and the tempos themselves were forward-moving without sacrificing Elgar’s characteristic fantasies and fluctuations; Keable’s use of antiphonal violins a welcome bonus.

It’s rare today that this symphony is brought home in the composer’s suggested 50 minutes; Keable did so without ever sounding rushed or pedantic. Indeed, the symphony was unfurled in the most convincing manner, albeit the scherzo was a little dogged, and it was here that the orchestra was rather too careful of the score’s difficulties. The first movement, though, was as glorious as the slow movement was moving (some lovely solo detailing along the way), and the finale (just a little circumspect at times) opened out to a thrilling and spacious conclusion.

The KSO has an enticing new season planned, and a CD due of Henry Walford Davies’s Everyman. Meanwhile, this concert was a fine example of the orchestra’s collective heart and commitment. It was good to hear Dvořák played complete; and Elgar was done proud, the Kensington Symphony Orchestra playing this masterwork with pride and appreciation.

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