Soloists of the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Wigmore Hall

Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp
Elegiac trio for Flute, Viola and Harp
Vaughan Williams
Phantasy String Quintet
Five Tango Sensations

Soloists of the London Philharmonic Orchestra:

Jaime Martin (flute), Alexander Zemtsov (viola) & Rachel Masters (harp)

Vesselin Gellev & Julia Rumley (violins), Alexander Zemtsov & Laura Vallejo (violas) and Susanne Beer (cello) [Puccini, Vaughan Williams & Piazzolla]

Julian Rowlands (bandoneón)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 20 December, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

“Chamber Contrasts” is the theme of the Soloists of the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s current season at Wigmore Hall, with a wide variety of music on offer.

Debussy and Bax wrote their works for flute, viola and harp just a year apart, the latter seemingly made aware of Debussy’s use of this unusual instrumental combination. Unfortunately the Debussy proved a bit of a struggle in this performance, the players concentrating closely on the notes rather than feeding off each other, implying a paucity of rehearsal time. As a result the essential freedom of Debussy’s remarkable music was compromised, and Alexander Zemtsov’s viola struggled to stay in tune in the more exposed sections. There were redeeming features, such as the nuances found in the melodies of the ‘Interlude’, and a nice touch of humour on Debussy’s throwaway ending, while Rachel Masters occasionally excelled with her pianissimo playing.

Bax’s Elegiac Trio fared much better, this attractive work of just under ten minutes bursting with lyricism. Its composer seemed more comfortable within slightly shorter forms, and the melodic material here is tightly controlled, moving through seemingly unrelated set of keys with relative ease. The piece drew from Masters some richly arpeggiated figures and the serene ending was particularly well done.

Vaughan Williams’s Phantasy Quintet predates the publication of the Bax by four years, and is a prime example of a period in which English composers were starting to assert their own musical personalities in chamber music. A French influence – equal parts Debussy and Ravel – remains in the scoring and harmonic language, but the most obviously English touch is in the pentatonic melody assigned to viola from the outset, nicely phrased without haste by Zemtsov. A most attractive performance unfolded, the rustic charm of the seven-in-a-bar scherzo leading to a softer slow movement, which made its emotional mark despite a fusillade of coughing from the audience, both inside and outside the hall. The finale’s most effective moment, meanwhile, was when it paused from the exchanges of folksong-influenced counterpoint to take in once again the main theme, Zemtsov again with its measure.

Puccini’s Crisantemi, the oldest music here, from 1890, began the second half in a lovingly phrased performance, with excellent ensemble and tuning in a relatively tricky key for the strings. A particular highlight here was the doubling in octaves of violin and cello, Vesselin Gellev and Susanne Beer beautifully aligned.

The bandoneón player Julian Rowlands joined the quartet for one of Astor Piazzolla’s most substantial works. Five Tango Sensations is mostly written out, but Rowlands made extemporisations based on Piazzolla’s recordings. His musicality was clear, always drawing from the members of the quartet for his material, but leading with authority in the evocative melodies of ‘Asleep’, the first tango. In ‘Despertar’ (Waking up) an extended solo introduction was skilfully harmonised. Occasionally Piazzolla assigns his melodies to the quartet, who responded with tasteful glissandos and portamento, while the final fugue swung its syncopations to great appeal. As an encore we were given Piazzolla’s Milonga del Angel, the string quartet led once again with great skill by Rowlands.

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