Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)
Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel
Reviewed: 26 May, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
It’s quite a testament to Spira mirabilis that it can pack out the Queen Elizabeth Hall (as part of Shell Classic International) for a single work lasting about forty minutes and with no concessions on the price of a ticket. (It had been Beethoven’s Fifth the night before.) Such is the confidence of this relatively new conductor-less chamber orchestra (which draws its young players from all over the world and Europe’s top ensembles) about attracting audiences that it has selected Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen, a mere twenty-five minutes, as the sole work for the QEH next year. Judging by the enthusiasm of the London audience to the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, it is likely to be another sell-out.
Spira mirabilis has no problem defending this one-work-per-concert formula. At the post-concert question and answer session (which normally follows Spira’s performances) the players addressed this issue giving various reasons for the short running times and an insight into their working methods. In the absence of a conductor the rehearsal times are painfully drawn out and much longer than with conductor-led orchestras. If one of the musicians wants to argue their case about tempo and phrasing then they have a right to be heard and convince their fellow-musicians of the need to follow their path. Secondly, they have decided that a single work focuses the audience’s minds more intensely; the ‘less is more’ argument. Then there’s the issue of contrasting styles of music, another aspect they feel uncomfortable with in a conventionally programmed concert. In fact Spira concerts shouldn’t really be called concerts.
All this would be fairly meaningless if the results weren’t so impressive. Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony wasn’t so much reinterpreted (many ‘period’ orchestras have trod a similar path) but reinvigorated. These young musicians are not only highly talented but play with every fibre of their soul, giving the music a freshness that was quite exhilarating.
Some may have found the approach to the opening movement less of a gentle awakening and more of a jolt with an electric prod, such were the sparks generated by the collective energy. At times the playing verged on the aggressive but it never sounded rushed or forced (tempos were fairly conventional). Intonation and ensemble was immaculate and even more remarkable for the lack of a conductor. The leaner sound arising out of the smaller numbers and a string section which plays with virtually no vibrato, allowed for a very clean, transparent sound. The winds had plenty of character, some wonderfully ebullient contributions coming from oboes and flutes.
The downside of the leaner sound could be felt in ‘Scene by the brook’ where a fuller, more opulent string tone was sorely missed. One could also gripe about the over-enthusiastic trumpets in the finale, but the benefits of this joyous performance outweighed these shortcomings. The dancing melodies of ‘Peasants’ Merrymaking’ had feet tapping all around me while the fearsome timpani strokes at the beginning of ‘Storm’ sent a shiver down the spine. The ferocity of the playing here made the ‘Shepherd’s Song’ truly a hymn of thanks, the relief all the more palpable and moving.