Royal College of Music SO/Litton

Euryanthe – Overture
Violin Concerto No.1 in D, Op.19
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin)

RCM Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Litton

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 9 February, 2006
Venue: Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

Reading the orchestra list for the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra is like visiting the United Nations: Hispanic names vying with Polish, the odd Korean, and two Japanese members in the percussion section. For good measure we had an American conductor, albeit one with strong British connections. The soloist, Tamsin Waley-Cohen, is only in her second year at the RCM but already has an impressive tote of competitions to her credit and, on the evidence of this concert, is clearly a name to watch out for.

The overture to “Euryanthe” received a slightly over-weight performance, nerves taking a little time to settle, but the exceptional quality of the RCM’s string-sound was immediately evident and Litton made much of the piece’s atmospheric quieter sections.

Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto was a courageous choice and for the most part Waley-Cohen justified it with secure intonation above the stave and an appealing sweetness of tone. The work’s opening stole in as if on tiptoe – and she was greatly aided by excellent support from a slimmed-down orchestra; Litton has a particular gift as a concerto accompanist, providing a sympathetic backdrop for his soloists and never hogging the limelight.

Waley-Cohen’s reading was at its best in the violin’s more stratospheric reaches where her ethereal playing had one thinking of Szymanowski’s slightly earlier First Concerto – and the concerto’s close was remarkable, as was the first-violin section’s secure and sensitive ascent to the conclusion. The more muscular sections could have done with greater weight of tone from the soloist, but this will doubtless come with time and, anyway, the RCM Concert Hall’s acoustic does not flatter.

Heft was certainly not in short supply in the Shostakovich, which ran Gergiev’s LSO performance of the Fourth Symphony at the beginning of the week a close second in terms of decibels. How wonderful though to hear a student orchestra produce this depth of string sound. Litton’s reading was high on conviction but short on subtlety, the first movement almost running away with itself before the inevitable slamming-on of brakes, the ironic scherzo had every agogic pause underlined, and the finale’s peroration dragged.

However, in between there was much to give pleasure, an especially chilling close to the first movement, a fine rasp from the double basses at the outset of the scherzo and hugely committed string-playing in the slow movement. Its invidious to single out particular players, but the distinctive harp-playing of Daniel De Fry and the sensitive flutes of Marlene Verwey and Yvonne Paterson should be mentioned.

The RCM Concert Hall is a difficult enough place to perform with its tunnel-like acoustic, chilly colour scheme and hyper-brilliant lighting (which reminds one of strip-lit Chinese restaurants). Would it not be an easy matter to repaint it magnolia or some warmer colour, and lower the lighting during the performances? Then it could make an appealing and appropriate venue for those late-night Proms that usually require a smaller hall than the next-door Royal Albert Hall.

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