London Schools Symphony Orchestra – Berlioz and Franck

Harold in Italy, Op.16
Symphony in D minor

Joshua Hayward (viola)

London Schools Symphony Orchestra
Robin O’Neill

Reviewed by: Bob Briggs

Reviewed: 21 April, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Paganini had acquired a Stradivarius viola but had no music to play on it, so he asked Berlioz to write him something. The result was Harold in Italy, a Symphony for orchestra with viola solo. Upon seeing the sketch for the first movement, Paganini told the composer that it would not do, there were far too many rests in the solo part. Paganini expected to play continuously and never played the work. Perhaps there was another reason. Put as simply as I can, Harold in Italy is not a particularly good work, a sprawling four-movement work, with solo viola, which isn’t particularly well orchestrated – very odd for the man who revolutionised orchestral scoring – with poor thematic ideas and a fairly uninspiring solo part.

Joshua Hayward is the principal viola of the London Schools Symphony Orchestra, and this autumn will take up a place at the Royal College of Music. I can well understand wishing to honour him and his achievement, but surely a ‘real’ viola concerto would have better served the purpose – Walton’s perhaps, or Hindemith’s Der Schwanendreher. Both would have shown off the performer described as “one of the orchestra’s brightest young talents”. Having said that, this was a solid performance, lacking bite, and remained firmly rooted to the ground.

The performance of Franck’s only Symphony was in a different class. This was a magnificent performance, full of fire and passion, and performed with much understanding; at no point did Robin O’Neill hold back and the musicians played for all they were worth. The first movement, notoriously difficult to interpret for it constantly moves from one tempo to another, was given a strong and taut performance, the music progressing logically, and with a carefully controlled growth to the climax which exploded into the hall; it was the culmination of the structure, not an episode within it, as conductors so often see it. The slow movement was graced with the beautiful cor anglais playing of Jessica Chorley, and the middle section, light as Mendelssohn’s fairies, was most successful. For the finale, O’Neill pulled all the stops out – Franck was an organist and one feels the presence of the organ loft from time to time – delivering a rip-roaring performance, relaxing only for the reprise of the slow movement’s theme. The performance ended in a real blaze of glory.

As an encore we were given the ‘Hungarian March’ from Berlioz’s “La Damnation de Faust” – the Frenchman at his best! A flawed concert, perhaps, but it was worth it for the white-hot performance of the Franck.

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