NQHO Gala Evening

Brahms
Tragic Overture, Op.81
Beethoven
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Schumann
Symphony No.2 in C, Op.61

Christian Blackshaw (piano)

New Queen’s Hall Orchestra
Oliver Gilmour


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 10 March, 2004
Venue: St. Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, London

This Gala concert by the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra was in aid of “Marie Curie Cancer Care”, an organisation devoted to looking after cancer patients in their own homes. There was a full house of the great, the good, and the merely famous, including Camilla Parker-Bowles who does sterling work for charity. One only wished that her Royal partner, my fellow-cellist in our school orchestra, had been able to attend – given his penchant for the traditional, he would have enjoyed a concert given by a wonderful orchestra. Prince Charles did though write a note for the programme.

The New Queen’s Hall Orchestra is devoted to recreating a performance style closely bonded with the original Queen’s Hall Orchestra that Sir Henry Wood founded back in 1895 for Promenade Concert purposes, an ensemble that itself became ’New’ in 1915 due to the orchestra’s German financier having to flee the country! The NQHO uses instruments that were the standard in the early years of the last century – narrow bore brass, distinctively-tangy French bassoons and so on, a far cry from the homogenised or brass-dominated sound of most modern orchestras. Although the NQHO plays a limited number of concerts it boasts some particularly fine players. The best and most imaginative compliment the BBC, now running the Proms, could pay to the memory of Sir Henry Wood would be to invite the orchestra that upholds his legacy to play regularly at the summer music festival, which would give the NQHO a visibility it richly deserves.

At the heart of this concert, Christian Blackshaw, a Curzon pupil who shares his poetic poetic and understated qualities, reprised the Beethoven piano concerto he had given at last year’s Proms – but now with a more sympathetic accompaniment; the wind contributions, particularly the bassoon, being memorable.

After an extended interval the audience were shepherded back to their pews, slightly reluctantly it has to be said, many still clutching wine-glasses for what was in some ways an even more revealing performance of the Schumann. If any justification were needed for the NQHO’s existence, this was surely it. Mercifully free of the blare which can afflict modern orchestras, Schumann’s soundworld fell neatly into focus, the less-powerful brass integrating naturally into the texture, the woodwind gentle and characterful (somewhat in the manner of the old Czech Philharmonic), and the violins divided left and right with the five double basses centred at the rear and very present in the texture.

Heard like this, the music’s rhetoric came across entirely naturally, and even the work’s ending, which can be bombastic and overblown, emerged without a hint of inflation. There was some roughness along the way – and Oliver Gilmour’s beat didn’t always seem to have a great deal to do with what was actually going on, especially in the Scherzo – but this was a real, living performance.

The NQHO really should have regular exposure on South Bank and Barbican programmes. If the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment can play to packed-houses at these venues, then the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra should be doing so too. Through it we hear the core 19th-century repertoire with fresh ears – a welcome antidote to the moribund routine of so much orchestral music-making.

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