The Croft Orchestra at Cadogan Hall

Tannhäuser – Overture
Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43

Melvyn Tan (piano)

The Croft Orchestra
William Kunhardt

Reviewed by: Tully Potter

Reviewed: 20 February, 2011
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

I can hardly think of a worthier reason for convening an 84-strong orchestra to give a concert, than raising money to help young musicians. Most of those who made up The Croft Orchestra were themselves young and had paid their own expenses to take part. One wants to salute such an enterprise, and in this case it becomes an absolute duty. It was my first hearing of the young British conductor William Kunhardt, and he is clearly a major talent. With just 13 hours’ rehearsal he had moulded his ad hoc band into a cohesive unit that made a solid, splendid sound.

It was all in aid of the Dorothy Croft Trust. She was a redoubtable American violin-teacher who worked for much of her life in Odessa – no, not that Odessa, but the one in Texas. Her daughter Dona Lee Croft, a violin professor at the Royal College of Music, wishes the Trust to fulfil the twin tasks of commemorating her mother and looking to the future of the profession. An American memorial concert for Dorothy Croft attracted a message from President Obama, reprinted in the Cadogan Hall programme. Unfortunately our politicians are not so culture-minded and there was no matching British message from the double-glazing salesmen who run our country at the moment. There was, however, Lord Winston, who told us that the trust would help musicians aged 12 to 26, and suffering financial hardships, with travel, equipment, masterclasses, special lessons, music courses and various expenses not covered by other charities. There had never been a more pressing time for such provision to be set up, he pointed out, with tuition fees due to be raised and other financial pressures threatening the arts. All the money raised would be used in the UK.

The violinists in the orchestra were pupils or former pupils of either Dorothy or Dona Lee Croft. The Leader was Cynthia Fleming from the BBC Concert Orchestra, Dermot Crehan led the Seconds, Andriy Viytovich the violas and Peter Buckoke the double basses. In the first-cello seat was Emma Ferrand (I strongly recommend her disc “Northern Lights”, which includes a superb performance of Edgar Bainton’s fine Cello Sonata). I was immensely impressed by the way Kunhardt marshalled his forces in the Overture to “Tannhäuser”. He shaped the music with great maturity but propelled it with youthful vigour, a compelling combination. The playing was resplendent and the performance was almost enough to banish memories of the recent ghastly production at Covent Garden.

In Beethoven’s C major Piano Concerto, Kunhardt and a reduced number of players achieved the right transparency. Unfortunately the soloist was Melvyn Tan, a pianist for whom the word mannerism might have been coined. He earned my gratitude by choosing the long cadenza in the opening movement but ruined the effect by playing it in such a rhythmically unstable way. In the Largo he often seemed to begin a phrase in one tempo and end it in another. His caprices in the finale might have been thought creative, were it not that he repeated them each time the same phrase came round. At least he put on a show and the audience liked it.

Sibelius’s Second Symphony really surged and thundered in Kunhardt’s hands. The excellent pizzicatos from the lower strings at the start of the Andante, and again in the finale, showed how hard everyone was trying; but there was no sense of effort, just co-operative music-making. Above all, Kunhardt did not take the finale too slowly: there was plenty of ebb and flow but he never lost sight of a basically flowing tempo, even in the final magnificent peroration. When it is played like this, the old warhorse shows why it is so well loved.

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