Richmond Chamber Symphony

J Strauss II, arr. Schoenberg
Emperor Waltz
Verklärte Nacht
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68

Richmond Chamber Symphony
Howard E. James

Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 19 March, 2005
Venue: St Matthias Church, Richmond-Upon-Thames

The well-heeled town of Richmond-upon-Thames, with its Victorian mansions and river views, might seem an unlikely place to go looking for musical adventure. However, since 1997 the Richmond Chamber Symphony has been smuggling Lutoslawski, Schnittke and Ligeti into these genteel environs, building a loyal following in the process. The audience enjoys the relaxed and unstuffy presentation of its concerts and, more importantly, the committed and energetic performances of a young ensemble playing, one suspects, more for love than for money.

This concert was an inventive take on Viennese fin de siècle, which began with Schoenberg’s lighter-than-air transcription of Johann Strauss II’s Emperor Waltz, made in 1925 for chamber forces. It is a delight to hear the fearsome modernist handling Strauss’s music so gently; this is clearly a work of homage, its luminous and contrasting textures nonetheless show Schoenberg’s own technical mastery, and it was played here with appropriate wit and brio.

A larger ensemble took the stage for music by a more intensely Romantic Schoenberg, his 1943 string orchestra version of Verklärte Nacht, introduced by conductor Howard E. James with the conviction and enthusiasm of a tabernacle preacher. There is, I think, a trade-off involved in the work’s enlargement from string sextet to orchestral forces; the fiendish, tortured figuration of the central sections can become muddy, and some of the intimacy of the narratives is lost. However, the compensation is the greater variety of textures, and the glorious power that a committed body of musicians can bring to moments of ecstatic revelation. This performance had intensity and power in spades, and benefited from lean and lovely solo playing by leader Alex Postlethwaite.

The second half looked to Schoenberg’s progressive model with an astringent take on Brahms’s First Symphony. This was very much a chamber orchestral reading of the work, light and agile, with the emphasis on projecting form and long melodic lines. The opening was taken at a breakneck tempo, setting the pace for the entire performance; while this was initially thrilling, I would have preferred to see a little more time taken over phrasing, particularly in the second movement. But this was terrifically exciting playing, strings assertively balancing the wind and brass, and the whole ensemble blowing the cobwebs from Brahms’s score.

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