The New Queen’s Hall Orchestra

Weber
Oberon – Overture
Beethoven
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)
Brahms
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73

John Lill (piano)

New Queen’s Hall Orchestra
John Farrer


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 29 January, 2005
Venue: Fairfield Halls, Croydon

This concert marked the next stage in the evolution of the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra: the launch of its own record label. This concert was recorded. Playing on instruments of a period, but not a period orchestra, the NQHO lifts the veil on the orchestral soundworld of the late-19th and early-20th centuries and is extraordinarily valuable in letting us hear timbres and balances which are completely lost to us today. As this concert made abundantly clear, the instruments, if not the size of the symphony orchestra, have changed far more over the last century than we might care to imagine. Although it may have been less powerful, what our forebears heard up to the time of the Second World War was very different and in some respects far more agreeable on the ear.

The opening of this concert underlined this, the warm sound of Susan Dent’s narrow-bore French horn emerging as it were from the far distance, the answering gut-strings gentle and characterful, and the balances within the orchestra emerging with total naturalness. In Weber’s music, the actual sound assumes particular importance and was here signalled time and time again, not least in the timbre of Keith Puddy’s beautiful clarinet solo.

Next, the first of two Opus 73s on the programme, John Lill playing the ‘Emperor’. Given the relative lack of power of the NQHO, it was rather a pity that a Bösendorfer piano (which has a drier, crisper and mellower sound than a Steinway) could not have been rustled up; the NQHO was somewhat dwarfed in fortissimo tuttis. However, Lill is a strongly ‘classical’ player who knows how to combine leonine power with delicacy; here delicacy and understatement were particularly notable in the finale’s episodes. The preceding Adagio, taken quite flowingly and devoid of exaggerated dynamics, was the beating heart of this performance and drew some finely poised playing from both soloist and orchestra.

The Brahms symphony came complete with first movement repeat and was again notable for evoking the sorts of sounds which Brahms himself might have heard with the Meiningen Orchestra under Fritz Steinbach, and very welcome it was too. For example, the horn’s interchanges with the strings at the work’s opening melded in a way which a modern orchestra would have to work far harder to achieve; similarly in the way that the horn was embedded in the strings at the movement’s close; and the slightly rustic-sounding woodwinds evoked a very particular world. Best of all was the slow movement where the contrary motion of cellos and bassoons took us straight to the heart of the matter whilst the movement’s climaxes completely avoided the hectoring quality sometimes heard with today’s modern-instrument orchestras.

American John Farrer, the conductor, may not be the most dynamic of leaders and sometimes one wished for more charisma, but he is unaffected and has one particular virtue … he lets musicians play, and the NQHO boasts some especially fine members. The New Queen’s Hall Orchestra was formed thirteen years ago and receives no state funding. It fulfils a valuable and unique function in allowing us to eavesdrop on the soundworld of core repertoire that the composers themselves would recognise and which their orchestrations and dynamics reflect.

Two thoughts. Elgar’s Salut d’amour, the first of two encores (the other being the overture to Figaro), made very clear that a CD of the lighter Elgar, conducted by Vernon Handley, would be an absolute winner – the string sound is glorious, the style perfect. Secondly, as well as putting money into renovating buildings, the National Lottery should now endow the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra to give it a financial base and enable it to plan regular seasons. It is as much a national asset as any building.



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