Overture, Le carnaval romain, Op.9
Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op.68
Karelia – Suite, Op.11
The Pines of Rome
Pia Segerstam (cello)
London Schools Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Andrew Morris
Reviewed: 27 April, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
The London Schools Symphony Orchestra welcomed back occasional guest conductor Leif Segerstam for an attractive programme, plus a left-field choice of concerto. Many ensembles need a little time to find its feet; this was the case with Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, which initially found the strings a little reluctant to play out. They needn’t have worried. The LSSO’s players had the full measure of Berlioz’s curtain-raiser and, under Segerstam’s steady direction, kept the momentum building to an energetic conclusion.
The inclusion of Britten’s Cello Symphony seemed an odd choice, partly on account of its challenge to the performers. Segerstam’s daughter Pia featured as soloist but failed to take flight. Britten’s sparse orchestration left much of the orchestra with very little to do and what there was presented a tremendous contest to the young musicians, which, to their credit, they met superbly. This is a difficult work for everyone, audience included, and though the piece shares a superficial similarity to the roughly contemporary cello concertos of Shostakovich, Britten’s Symphony is even more introspective and gloomy than Shostakovich’s more celebrated efforts. Like the Shostakovich concertos, it was composed for Rostropovich, that most urgently communicative of string players, but in the solo role, Pia Segerstam remained uptight and reserved. It didn’t help that she played assiduously into her music stand throughout, and her small and rarely varied tone fatally downplayed the confessional and dramatic elements of the score. Leif Segerstam couldn’t coax more than a mezzo-forte from the orchestra; a great shame, considering the excellence of many of the contributions. The winds were particularly fine in the jabbing figures of the first movement and the finale featured an outstanding trumpet solo, but the cellist’s reticence in this challenging work of whispers and shadows was a long haul.
After the interval, Sibelius’s Suite from his incidental music to “Karelia” allowed the strings to shine, particularly in ‘Ballade’, with a rich tone and sensitive phrasing. Segerstam couldn’t resist a joke: in the jolly melody of the final movement he turned from the orchestra to observe the audience, demonstrating that the young players could handle the music by themselves. Respighi’s Pines of Rome found the orchestra at its most resplendent. The opening glittered and darted and the final march grew and grew thrillingly, with particularly effective use of offstage brass in the balcony. And beautiful solos from clarinet and cor anglais confirmed how well served the LSSO is with fine young players.