Kensington’s Korngold Korker!

Chabrier, orch. Holloway
Cortège Burlesque [world première]
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23
Symphony in F sharp

Nikolai Demidenko (piano)

Kensington Symphony Orchestra
Russell Keable

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 13 January, 2004
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

For enterprising programming, the Kensington Symphony Orchestra once again scores over most professional orchestras. Given the seeming reluctance of any main orchestra last year to recognise Robin Holloway’s 60th-birthday, hats off to Russell Keable and his band for organising the world première of Holloway’s witty and hugely enjoyable orchestration of Chabrier’s piano duo, the oddly titled Cortège Burlesque. As Holloway himself admitted in his brief note, the piece could have been written anytime in an 18-year span of Chabrier’s early career, so little is known about it, but Holloway and Jeremy Sams, fellow Chabrier-ist (who adapted L’Etoile for Opera North) and dedicatee of the orchestration, had always enjoyed bashing through it. The orchestration of the march with its subtler trio section before the da capo repeat and thumping climax, was like a Gallic Pomp and Circumstance March, and it deserves the widest currency. Professional orchestras please note.

A nearly-full Queen Elizabeth Hall greeted Holloway with great affection, as they also did pianist Nikolai Demidenko who managed to control himself at the Steinway (seated on the most compact piano stool I have ever seen – its spindly frame emblazoned with a rival piano maker’s name: FAZIOLI) so as not to unbalance the smaller acoustic of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. How many times has Demidenko played this concerto? Yet there was no sense of routine, and even the occasional slip merely goes to show that, yes, this concerto really is difficult (flash performances always fail, as their very glibness glosses over the depths of the music). Admirable support too, occasional slips aside, from the orchestra.

But for me, at least, the real meat was the second half.Korngold’s single Symphony is perhaps an anomaly: written in the 50s when Europe had turned to Stockhausen and Boulez, with Darmstadt the epicentre of iconoclastic musical nihilism.Korngold may have died embittered, but we can now enjoy this symphony as an extraordinary testimonial to his extraordinary career, from internationally acclaimed wunderkind to Hollywood composer extraordinaire. All of this can be heard in the brooding first movement, the quixotic scherzo and its charming trio, the slow anguished swell of the slow movement, part Mahler, part neurotic Shostakovich, while the finale again mixes brash Shostakovich with Strauss (Till Eulenspiegel) – as I mentioned in my notes (I must declare an interest here!).

Russell Keable also gave a spoken introduction to the Symphony.There is probably no more experienced Korngold conductor in Britain; the Kensington Symphony Orchestra gave the British première of Die Tote Stadt and, more recently, performed Korngold’s earlier opera Violanta. The KSO upheld its tradition with great aplomb in this concert, with some distinguished instrumental solos (perhaps invidious to highlight just one). As ever, a second performance would no doubt have allowed the realisation to settle and become more secure still, but this was an invigorating way to start the concert New Year.

The concert was recorded, presumably for the archives.

The KSO is only offered a Queen Elizabeth Hall date when the rest of the South Bank is recovering, post ballet, from Christmas celebrations. The remainder of its concert season takes place at St John’s, Smith Square, where further innovative programming sees the celebration of John Woolrich’s 50th-birthday (10 May). For further details, see the KSO’s extensive website.

However, the orchestra is back in action at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in an accompanying role on Monday 9 February, with the London Oriana Choir, conducted by David Drummond, in the first London performance for over 50 years of Sir Henry Walford Davies’s Everyman, an oratorio for which the parts have only recently been rediscovered.

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