New Queen’s Hall Orchestra

Franck
Pièce Héroïque
Saint-Saëns
Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op.78
Berlioz
Te Deum, Op.22

William Whitehead (organ)

Andrew Staples (tenor)

Barts Choir
Leicester Philharmonic Choir
Capital Arts Children’s Choir

New Queen’s Hall Orchestra
Ivor Setterfield


Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 18 April, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

One of three pieces for solo organ written by César Franck in 1878, Pièce Héroïque was the opener to this concert. It was securely played but others may prefer the extensive use of rubato deployed by William Whitehead. The big moments were strongly projected, though overall I found it rather a fussy performance not fully conveying the ‘héroïque’ qualities of the piece’s title.

Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony is, of course, one which organ-buffs relish for that instrument’s contribution to the triumphant finale. In fact, the organ is only used at that point and in this two-part symphony’s equivalent of a ‘slow’ movement. Thus the main interest is in the orchestra’s contribution and following the composer’s intriguing working-out of his musical ideas. The New Queen’s Hall Orchestra boasts the use of instruments made between the late-19th-century and in the early decades of the 20th. The information in the programme asserts that “the NQHO often sounds like a large chamber group”. Well and good; but I am not at all sure that a ‘chamber’ sonority is required for this particular Saint-Saëns symphony or, certainly, for Berlioz’s “Te Deum” when played in a spacious acoustic such as that of the Royal Albert Hall.

The symphony was given a somewhat cautious reading – the ensemble took a while to settle in the first movement Allegro, following an atmospheric introductory Adagio, where the distinctive timbres of oboe and flute could be appreciated. The woodwinds throughout the evening were consistently fine and their tone was undeniably individual. The strings, though, sounded somewhat under-nourished. I can only question whether papery upper strings and half-hearted portamento is really ‘authentic’ – however one wishes to define that term. Perhaps if the string numbers were more numerous, some of these reservations may not have registered. The brass did not ‘cut through’ in the way one expects from modern instruments, but that is part of the NQHO’s philosophy, and so the blend of the whole was more reserved; however, I did feel that the tinny little cymbals were, to say the least, puny in effect.

The slow second half of the first movement (Poco adagio) initially features gentle organ chords preceding an expressive string melody. This began at a much higher dynamic level than the given pianissimo and, later when the woodwinds have the melody, the accompanying strings were too loud. Ivor Setterfield set a good, vigorous tempo for the start of the second part, and the various episodes were well contrasted. The piano’s contribution registered most effectively (although it seems to have been amplified!) and, come the finale, the organ did not obliterate everything else. Actually, Whitehead was arguably a touch reticent and one didn’t sense a final adrenaline-rush at the symphony’s exciting conclusion.

At the start of Berlioz’s “Te Deum”, orchestral weight was, once again, wanting, with the mighty alternating organ and orchestra chords not matched in equality of volume. Whilst I would have preferred a little more ‘allegro’ and less ‘moderato’ in the main body of the opening movement, Setterfield directed a purposeful, if sometimes rather careful, reading of music which should burn more uninhibitedly than it did here. If I recall correctly, Berlioz used the term ‘Babylonian’ to describe his “Te Deum” setting. We were many miles away from that particular location.

Choral singing was largely secure, with occasional – if understandable – lapses in total co-ordination. The Capital Arts Children’s Choir was excellent. Singing from memory, its members’ uninhibited projection of words and music might have been emulated by some of the adults. In some of the most fully-scored passages – and, indeed, elsewhere – some important string figuration was lost. The gurgling woodwinds in the ‘Sanctus’, however, were a delight. Andrew Staples demonstrated a mellifluous tenor in his ‘Te ergo’ solo, making some of the rather awkward phrasing sound quite natural. Unaccountably, his voice, and the choir for that matter, was amplified! The concluding ‘Judex crederis’ really needed a more implacable – menacing, even – tread than it received here, and the anorexic bass drum hardly thundered weightily as Berlioz surely intended.

One admired the commitment of the whole – Setterfield undeniably galvanising his enthusiastic forces – but, ultimately, this reading lacked that elusive quality which can bring Berlioz’s music blazingly to life.

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