London Mozart Players/Collon at The Anvil – Stravinsky, McDowall & Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony

Danses concertantes
Theatre of Tango
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)

Jeremy Huw Williams (baritone) & Marieke Blankestijn (violin)

London Mozart Players
Nicholas Collon

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 26 January, 2012
Venue: The Anvil, Basingstoke

A well proportioned programme; a fine orchestra; a chance to hear something new. Despite these appealing ingredients, once again the people of Basingstoke stayed away, this time from the London Mozart Players’ concert; Stravinsky, McDowall and Beethoven were performed to a three-quarters-empty hall.

The new came in the form of Cecilia McDowall’s Theatre of Tango, first performed by the Welsh Chamber Orchestra in May 2011. Three poems by Seán Street, which paint a gloomy and violent view of the tango’s allure, are set to music caught somewhere between the thrusting vigour of Astor Piazzolla’s celebrated music and a more knotty, post-tonal, European sound. Following the example of Gidon Kremer, who did much to promote Piazzolla’s music with arrangements of his tangos for violin and strings, McDowall makes a violinist one of two soloists. A singer is saddled with Street’s wordy text, only occasionally intelligible through an unforgiving vocal line which often had Jeremy Huw Williams gasping at the verse. LMP leader Marieke Blankestijn had the more appealing part to play, but her colleagues picked their way through the score rather politely.

Naming the piece Theatre of Tango suggests a certain Grand Guignol excess: an intention to ramp up the essence of that dance to something lurid and extreme. Certainly, the text stabs at this, but placing the careful enunciation of an operatic voice at the centre of the work misses the mark and the overriding impression is of a piece attempting to view the essence of tango at too great a remove.

Danses concertantes is one of Stravinsky’s celebrated ballets, though it was performed without choreography at its 1942 Los Angeles premiere. It’s the composer in neo-classical vein, though some of the Coplandesque lightness and brightness of Stravinsky’s adopted country seems to have found its way in, including moments of tenderness one doesn’t often associate with the creator of The Rite of Spring. Nicholas Collon directed a clean and fleet performance, graced by many fine solo contributions. A little more of the vitality of chamber-music-making, however, would have lifted the score further off the page; this pared-down LMP sounded like an orchestra missing most of its members.

The stage’s empty seats were filled for Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, though this remained a compact orchestra. Nicholas Collon and the LMP steered a refreshing path between the style of ‘historically-informed-performance’ practise and the techniques of the ‘modern’ orchestra, with Collon matching that spirit of compromise with speeds that flowed without needing to be pressed. Greater spaciousness in the ‘Scene by the Brook’ would have separated it further from the opening movement and there was certainly more scope for characterisation of moments such as the bridge into the ‘Storm’, but Collon and the LMP succeeded in revealing many inner textures without overburdening the work with attention-grabbing interventionist gestures. The climax of the finale felt like the symphony’s highpoint, swelling naturally to express Beethoven’s “feelings of happiness and gratitude after the storm.”

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