Saint-Saëns Festival – ECO (Barbican Hall, 22 April)

Une nuit à Lisbonne, Op.36
Cello Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.33
Violin Concerto No.3 in B minor, Op.61
La muse et le poète, Op.132
Symphony No.2 in A minor, Op.55

Steven Isserlis (cello)

Joshua Bell (violin)

English Chamber Orchestra
Jean-Luc Tingaud

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 22 April, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Following the opening concert of the Saint-Saëns Festival, a feast of the composer’s chamber music at the Wigmore Hall, the festival continued with a colourful and varied selection of orchestral works. And again we were treated to the prodigious virtuosity of Steven Isserlis and Joshua Bell.

The concert opened with the ’tone poem’ Une nuit à Lisbonne, composed while Saint-Saëns was touring Spain and Portugal and is a delightful evocation of a Portuguese evening. The orchestra is skilfully used, with simple thematic material, introduced by a gentle opening, elaborated by woodwind solos and a charming central interlude for the strings alone. The piece ends as quietly as it began. Jean-Luc Tingaud, making his London debut, showed his predilection for the slightly brisk tempos that were to be a feature of the concert, but given the lighter textures of a chamber orchestra the pace never seemed hurried.

The Cello Concerto No.1, first performed by the octogenarian Auguste Tolbecque in 1873, is a real tour-de-force for the instrument. Isserlis displayed both superior musicianship and manual dexterity, with dazzling passage-work in the outer sections (the work forms one continuous movement) giving way to expressive singing in the middle section: an Allegretto con moto consisting of an archaic-sounding minuet and wistful trio. And the orchestra rose to the challenge set by Isserlis’s furious pace, with some particularly fine work from the strings and brass section.

Joshua Bell then gave an exciting and eloquent reading of the Violin Concerto No.3, probably the most well-known piece in this programme. From the grand rhetorical gestures of the first movement and the delightfully pastoral Andantino quasi allegretto through to the dynamic last movement, soloist, conductor and orchestra were as one. Bell managed to coax a big, meaty sound from his instrument when required, tempered by mercurial passage-work and sublime harmonics; Tingaud likewise coaxed a whole array of nuances from the orchestra, which seemed to be responding well to his fluid conducting style.

Following the interval, both soloists gave a performance of one of Saint-Saëns’s late works, La muse et le Poète, based on a poem by Alfred de Musset, in which a jilted poet invokes the Muse of poetry. In this one-movement work, the cello represents the poet; the violin represents the muse, and the richly romantic opening leads to an often-troubled dialogue between the protagonists, full of lyrical melodies descriptive orchestration. This was a heartfelt, committed performance, with the soloists responding sensitively both to each other and to the orchestra, which in its turn brought expressive warmth.

The Second Symphony has a startlingly Brahmsian first movement, a curious slow movement which manages to look both back to the eighteenth century and forward to the twentieth, a Germanic scherzo with a comically sudden final chord, and a sprightly finale recalling Mendelssohn. This work always runs the risk of sounding like a pastiche in the wrong hands. Here it was in very capable hands. Again, tempi were on the brisk side, which worked wonders in raising the musical tension a notch or two and lending coherence to the piece as a whole; the orchestra’s playing was limpid and precise. Tingaud achieved good balance among the sections while introducing some flexibility in the phrasing, pulse and dynamics. All in all, a very convincing finale to a wonderful evening of music-making.

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