Serenade for Strings, Op.20
Horn Concerto, Op.23
Les Illuminations, Op.18
Pamela Hay (soprano)
Adam Walters (horn)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 9 January, 2004
Venue: St Giles Cripplegate, London
Concerts for which musicians drawn from London’s freelance pool commit to days of rehearsal, and for little or no pay, might sound like pie in the sky given the economic realities of the classical market. Yet Sound Collective, fronted by the charismatic Tom Hammond, achieved that last January with an auspicious debut at St John’s, Smith Square. This January saw them ensconced at St Giles for a follow-up concert of demanding repertoire, performed with flair and skill. Would that one could say the same for all such events on the London calendar!
Elgar’s Serenade might seem a gentle ’play in’, but its amiable melodic contours conceal a true symphonic thinker in the making. It was this aspect that Hammond’s taut but elegant approach, stressing continuity between movements and never killing the music with sentiment, conveyed in some measure. The pathos of the central Larghetto was astutely judged, and the Allegretto’s recall of the opening music was deftly integrated so as to bring the work gently full circle.
40 this year, Matthew Taylor has for some years been a composer and conductor of note (q.v. – his recent concert for David Matthews’s 60th birthday), and it was good to see revived one of his most spirited and outward-going pieces. Lasting 18 minutes, the Horn Concerto is cast in two parts, each of two movements: a vigorous and compact Allegro leading into a crepuscular Scherzo, then an eloquent Lento contrasting with a lively (if fractionally too concise) Fugue. Adam Walters need not suffer comparison with dedicatee Richard Watkins in his command of some tricky passagework, while the broad-spanned theme of the second movement’s trio gave his mellow tone a chance to shine.
After a relatively short first half, the concert resumed with two substantial works. Although more often sung by a tenor, Britten’s Les Illuminations was written with a soprano in mind, and takes on a greater sensuousness when performed as such. As well as the required upper range, Pamela Hay had the vocal presence to project Rimbaud’s flights of fancy so that the audience ’feels’ their potency without necessarily comprehending. Articulation was a little stretched in ’Villes’ and the rhythmic delicacy of ’Royauté’ rather ironed out, but the dying fall of ’Phrase’ was spellbinding – as were the teasing prosody of ’Being Beauteous’ and those varied recurrences of the initial setting which impart unity to the cycle as a whole.
Regulars on the London scene may have caught Thomas Zehetmair’s inspirational account of Apollo with the Northern Sinfonia at last year’s Proms. While Hammond’s performance didn’t quite match this level of excellence, it was full of incidental insight, at its best in the muses’ dances, bringing out their contrasting characters to a telling degree. Apollo’s variation had the right rhetorical grandeur, while the ensuing Pas de deux impressed with its chaste sentiment and subtly varied string colouring. Apollo’s birth seemed a trifle restive (and a pause before the violin cadenza makes the preceding dynamic curve all the more eloquent), while the apotheosis – in which Stravinsky seems to contemplate the deception of his Arcadian vision – lacked gravitas. It would have helped also to proceed directly between numbers, ensuring continuity across this most seamless of ballet scores.
Such reservations should be seen in the context of the performance, and of the concert, overall. From which vantage, Sound Collective is as excellent as it is enterprising, and Hammond a conductor whose range of sympathies and interpretative convictions ought to win plaudits. Their next concert, scheduled for 7th January 2005, will include the premiere of Matthew Taylor’s Third Symphony as well as Beethoven’s Eroica. Make a note in your advance planner, and be there!