London Schools Symphony Orchestra

Die Walküre – The Ride of the Valkyries
Concerto in E flat for Two Pianos, K365
After Mozart [UK premiere]
Symphony No.4 in E flat (Romantic)

Tamás Erdi (piano)

London Schools Symphony Orchestra
Tamás Vásáry (piano)

Reviewed by: Ken Ward

Reviewed: 30 April, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The most wonderful, heart-warming thing about this concert was to be sat before a large orchestra of London school children, amongst an audience made up primarily of their parents, friends, teachers, listening in total silence and rapt concentration throughout its length to a Bruckner symphony. And then, to cap it all, to listen to more Bruckner repeated as an encore! The future for classical music may not be as dire as we sometimes think when we survey the greying maturity of many an audience for such a programme, most of whom would have shuffled off immediately the last note sounded.

And these children are not primarily music students, but school kids who also play an instrument, and amongst them were some outstanding performers. That heart-stopping moment in the recapitulation of the first movement of Bruckner’s Fourth when the opening horn call returns decorated by a counter melody on the solo flute – this was beautifully played. The flautist was exceptional throughout, as were the solo horns, trumpet and timpanist. As for the orchestra as a whole, of course it is pointless to comment on the ways in which they fall short of professional performance; far better to meditate upon the magnificence of their achievement this evening.

They opened with a decent enough rendition of Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries, though Tamás Vásáry failed to elicit quite the wild enthusiasm one might hope for from young performers. But the accompaniment the orchestra provided for Mozart’s Concerto for two pianos was more than adequate. The equality of the writing for each piano is one of the most attractive things about this work, a work for siblings to play. On this occasion the difference in age and experience between the two Tamáses, Vásáry and Erdi, gave a different slant to the work, evoking more a father and son, teacher and pupil, and it was intriguing to listen to how differently the same phrases spoke when handled by the one or the other.

After the Mozart, Maestro Vásáry turned to the audience and gave the first of four little addresses. This first was the usual school-concert talk full of appreciation, thanks and congratulation to all and sundry, and thereafter Tamás Erdi tossed off Mozart’s Rondo in D as an encore. Another little talk introduced László Dubrovay’s After Mozart. This is a fun piece for enormous orchestra including celesta, harp and seven percussionists, a set of variations on ‘Non più andrai’ from “The Marriage of Figaro”. (The comedy of this piece was, in the event, upstaged by Tamás Vásáry’s variations on how to leave the podium: on two occasions tip-toeing in front of the first violins where little stage existed to tread on and he looked as though any moment he would fall into the auditorium, and then as a tour de force he circled round the front of the podium where there was no stage at all to walk on, but he hung indefatigably on to the rail and achieved an unlikely safe return to the wings.)

After the interval Vásáry introduced the Bruckner symphony, warning us that it would last 70 minutes, and telling one of those Bruckner anecdotes (when asked by the leader of the orchestra if he was ready to start conducting, Bruckner reportedly replied politely, “After you”), and then embarked on what was an altogether easy-going, lyrical performance of the ‘Romantic’ Symphony. Even though the brass was doubled – eight horns, six trumpets – the orchestral balance was very effective, indeed a lot more comfortable to listen to than many a blaring brass-heavy professional orchestra performance. The da capo scherzo improved with each playing – so that by the third repeat, the encore, it was truly splendid! Vásáry took the finale first subject quickly, and the great unisons were presented with a light touch, and none of the massive portentousness that some interpreters favour. The coda was nicely judged and brought a glorious close.

Donald Sturrock’s programme notes were entertaining and evocative, but the statement that Bruckner was odd, “as terrified of fire as he was fascinated by steam engines and cadavers” is really over-egging the pudding. The steam engine story is, I believe, a total fiction founded upon a radio spoof, and it’s pity to see it presented before schoolchildren as fact when on the evidence of this concert the music alone was quite gripping enough without embellishment by trivia. As Maestro Vásáry said in his fourth address to the audience, “This is an evening they will remember for the rest of their lives.”

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