The New Queen’s Hall Orchestra – Twentieth Anniversary Season; John Boyden’s 75th-Birthday Concert – Great String Masterpieces

Divertimento in D, K136
Elegy for Strings, Op.58
Anon., arr. Harty
Londonderry Air
Capriol Suite
Serenade in C for Strings, Op.48

New Queen’s Hall Orchestra
Paul Murphy

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 13 September, 2011
Venue: St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London

Renegade. Outsider. Maverick. These are just a few descriptive nouns (amongst others) which have been appended to John Boyden’s name in recent decades in an attempt to deflect serious discussion of the qualities he possesses and by which he espouses in his crusade to improve the standards of orchestral playing in this country – more especially, in the performance of orchestral repertoire composed up to around 1945.

That year is not necessarily an arbitrary cut-off point: but it will do, for Boyden feels (quite rightly) that since the end of World War Two the sound symphony orchestras make has changed, and by no means necessarily for the better, following the adoption of what might be termed the timbres of ‘American’ brass instruments with the result that (a) other groups within an orchestra have had to change the nature of the contribution they make in order simply to be heard, and (b) we no longer hear orchestral music, written in the heyday of the late-Romantic period (very broadly, in the century between – say – 1845 and 1945), as the composers themselves expected and heard their works: points which are readily demonstrable by reference to electrical (i.e., post-1924) gramophone recordings.

In practical terms, this belief has led Boyden to the formation of the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra, whose very title has a distinguished provenance (from Henry Wood’s time), wherein (in simple terms) its members play instruments (or copies) of the period in the known technical manner of the era – the most obvious being that of string-playing, with the restoration of portamento as a naturally expressive interpretative device, growing as it were from within the music and not applied as an outside patina.

But, unlike all established British orchestras, the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra does not enjoy a cushion of public subsidy (another ‘authentic’ aspect), so the struggles which John Boyden has perforce to undergo in order to realise his dream are made trickier: many would have simply given up in the process, but he does not, spurred on by an inner belief in the rightness of his mission.

It is rather more than that, however: before forming the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra Boyden’s experience in the classical orchestral music world was formidable indeed. He was the driving force behind EMI’s Classics for Pleasure series of recordings, which sold millions of copies in the days of the 33⅓ rpm long-playing record, and he produced literally thousands of new recordings of a wide range of music (the logo “A John Boyden Recording” being a guarantee of excellence); he became Managing Director of the London Symphony Orchestra, and later founded a number of important record labels – Enigma, especially – so his wide experience has been exceptional, bringing practical knowledge to his later campaign which less-knowledgeable or -competent figures simply do not possess.

Yet the very nature of Boyden’s beliefs, however artistically laudable they may drive him, has meant conflict with other music administrators – after all, few warm to the experience of being told that what they are doing is wrong – but as we are dealing with art, the proof of this particular musical pudding lies in the eating thereof: the practical experience of listening.

It takes time, too, and as that characteristic of life waits for no man, it came as a salutary minder of the passing of the seasons to be told that John Boyden celebrates his 75th-birthday on 14 September 2011 – an occasion honoured by this concert at St Martin-in-the-Fields given by the NQHO, which coincidentally marks the beginning of its 20th-year of (re-existence. The programme was of music for string orchestra, which some may initially have felt rather diluted the nature of the project with the orchestra’s overall sound lacking wind, brass and percussion, but which in the event proved wholly suitable. The acoustics of this noble church respond better to stringed instruments than to a full orchestra, and we could concentrate on just what it must have been like, one hundred years ago and more, to witness an entire concert of string-playing by an orchestra of accomplished musicians.

It was a delightful musical meal: the richness and depth of sound produced by the strings of the NQHO – for it is the strings which, after all, form the basis of all symphony orchestras – were nothing short of revelatory: nor was it purely the sound, it was the manner of playing – a full, natural vibrato and the occasional, just a touch here and there, of portamento, applied as naturally as breathing a sigh, and thereby giving life to music with which every bar we may have been familiar, but done so in a way that surely caused us to pause and consider that John Boyden has been right all along.

The result was enthralling, engrossing and unfailingly musical, with Paul Murphy finding just the right tempos throughout and adjusting the balance finely, even in the opening work, the first of the teenaged Mozart’s so-called ‘Salzburg Symphonies’: so often, these days, we hear the opening descending top line at the expense of the inner parts – but here, the total richness of the composer’s subtly woven musical tapestry was displayed for all to hear, as natural as the very air we breathe. If one regretted a formal decision not to observe the repeats of both halves of the first movement it was only that one would have liked to hear this music once more; but further revelations were to come in the exposition of the finale – here was, in those first four bars, a ‘new’ sound, surely more ‘authentic’ than the vibrato-less obsessions of the musica antiqua brigade, and certainly more human-sounding.

Elgar’s rarely-heard Elegy was given as to the manner born, and leader Richard Friedman blossomed in the solo line of Hamilton Harty’s transcription of the Londonderry Air for solo violin, strings and harp. Puccini’s Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums), a piece of arch-romantic texturalisation, was composed for string quartet, so the double-basses were literally absent (leaving the orchestra beforehand and returning afterwards); they were needed for Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite – a minor English masterpiece if ever there was one – which was really well played, to wholly delightful and winning effect.

Finally, one of the major masterpieces for string orchestra – Tchaikovsky’s Serenade. This received the most impressive performance of the evening, the players now free to express themselves over longer paragraphs, to refine their phrasing in more extended thematic writing, more evolving harmonic bases and more genuinely symphonic composition – the result being (to quote one of John Boyden’s fondly-remembered phrases) – as close to “classical truth” as we are ever likely to get.

The great man himself spoke briefly, after an introduction from the Orchestra’s Chairman, Richard Redmile, and a heartfelt tribute from Boyden’s son Matthew (biographer of Richard Strauss, among other accomplishments); for such music-making as we heard, our thanks and best wishes to the ‘onlie begetter’ are expressed with redoubled emphasis.An unpublicised musical tribute to the man himself – the ‘Cavatina’ from Beethoven’s Opus 130 String Quartet – ended the first half, played with genuine feeling and warmth.

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