Orion Symphony Orchestra at Cadogan Hall [Four Sea Interludes … Guy Johnston plays Elgar … Stravinsky world premiere]

Peter Grimes – Four Sea Interludes
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
Mussorgsky, orch. Landers
Sunless – On the River [World premiere of orchestration]
Orchestration of Song of the Volga Boatmen [World premiere]
Symphonic Dances, Op.45

Guy Johnston (cello)

Robert Poulton (baritone)

Orion Symphony Orchestra
Toby Purser

Reviewed by: Tully Potter

Reviewed: 24 March, 2011
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Toby Purser. Photograph: Keith DayThis concert was the Orion Symphony Orchestra’s first under its new status as a charity. It appears to fulfil the same function as the National Orchestral Association in New York, as a bridge between college and an orchestral career for outstanding young players. I spotted many already-familiar names. Cadogan Hall itself is now a valuable feature of London musical life, as it has an excellent acoustic and just about holds a full orchestra, while providing enough seats to make a concert financially viable.

Under Toby Purser’s highly competent direction, the youngsters made a huge sound at times. He ‘likes his brass’, in the time-honoured phrase, but his confidence in the wind and brass sections was well founded. I felt that he was sometimes more concerned to give a clear beat than to shape and animate the performance; and even so, there was imprecision among the percussion – the one section where such things cannot be allowed. The bass drummer and timpanist can be absolved of blame. ‘Four Sea Interludes’ from Britten’s “Peter Grimes” instantly showed the quality of the First Violin section and the clarity of the playing throughout the orchestra suited the composer’s clean lines. Purser cast all restraint aside in ‘Storm’, whipping up a fearful frenzy.

Guy Johnston. Photograph: Hanya ChlalaGuy Johnston gave an absolutely beautiful account of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, well paced and justly proportioned. He does not make a big sound – his instrument looks relatively small – but having now heard him in two different acoustics, I can confirm that his tone projects well. He is a W. H. Squire rather than a Jacqueline du Pré, meaning that he takes a very English, restrained attitude to the music. But that is exactly what the piece needs. A du Pré is a special case, but normally I prefer to hear the aristocratic touch. From Johnston the quieter moments were amazingly quiet and very ‘inward’. By being less demonstrative, he drew his listeners into his confidence. He was well accompanied and the orchestral players seemed fully in sympathy with his approach.

After the interval, the fine figure of baritone Robert Poulton gave us two familiar songs in unfamiliar dress. Professor Joseph Landers, an American musicologist who was present in the audience, discovered in 1996 a set of parts and a vocal score for “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” with a note on the cover saying: “Parts orchestrated by Stravinsky especially for Mr Chaliapin.” My understanding is that Chaliapin did not sing this work-song until asked to do so for a 1922 recording, whereupon he protested that it had only one verse and a refrain. A second verse was provided and the rest is history. But it means that we can date this arrangement to sometime after 1922. Landers had provided his own orchestral scoring of ‘On the River’ from Mussorgsky’s “Sunless” cycle; and Poulton sang both songs in Russian with authority, although he did not attempt the floated high note which Chaliapin, Reizen and others have accustomed us to hearing at the end of ‘Volga Boatmen’. I would say it is quite plausible that the folksong arrangement is by Stravinsky, as his father Feodor was a famous character bass and he himself was an admirer of Chaliapin’s art.

We finished with the last major work by Chaliapin’s friend Rachmaninov, Symphonic Dances. Frankly I was disappointed by the lukewarm performance of the first movement, in which the saxophone solo was disastrously underplayed – the composer, by then under the influence of American orchestral sound, was surely thinking of the sort of saxophone-playing we used to get from such as Alfred Gallodoro. In the second Dance, Purser had obviously worked with the strings on romantic portamento, especially in the First Violins, and although it did not seem entirely natural to these players, it was nevertheless welcome – as was Nathaniel Anderson Frank’s fine violin solo; and everyone seemed more involved, and by the end of the third Dance orchestra and conductor were making a marvellous din.

Finally, a welcome sign of the times: out of six bassists, four were women. The second violins, violas and cellos were led by women – Stephanie McCabe, Meghan Cassidy and Emily Francis – and although men predominated in the winds and brass, the female quotient was substantial. Let us hope that this fine young orchestra, founded in 2005, will soon be as well known as any in London.

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