Festival Overture, Op.96
Concierto de Aranjuez
The Queen Symphony [world premiere]
Craig Ogden (guitar)
Nicola Loud (violin)
Tim Gill (cello)
John Lenehan (piano)
Crouch End Festival Chorus
Finchley Childrens Music Group
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 6 November, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
Eleven years since the death of Freddie Mercury, and six years since their last album of new material, Queen were rapidly becoming an indelible collective memory. The Queen Symphony isn’t a new album as such (although it on an EMI CD), let alone a means of reactivating the band, but it does point up the durability of their material – as well as giving fans the world over something new for their collections.
The seriousness of intent behind Tolga Kashif’s creation was demonstrated by making it the second half of a concert-length programme. A blowsy, foursquare account of Shostakovich’s Festival Overture was hardly an auspicious start, but Craig Ogden’s immaculate technique shone through in the evergreen Concierto de Aranjuez. The pathos of the central ’Adagio’ brought out some attractive dovetailing of detail between soloist and orchestra, though a lack of articulation in ensemble meant that the outer movements left too generalised an impression.
As to the main item, there’s no doubt that Kashif – whose credentials as an all-round musician are impressive – has carried out his task thoroughly and conscientiously. On an impressive scale too – as The Queen Symphony, playing for just short of an hour and dividing into six movements, is nothing if not symphonic in intent.
The opening movement, using “Radio Gaga” as its underlying motif, builds gradually and purposefully to the climactic entry of the chorus, maintaining the plateau of emotion, while other songs – from the heart-on-sleeve domain of Queen’s songbook – are introduced. The second movement is an easy- paced intermezzo, given ironic sting by the introduction of “Another One Bites The Dust” and “Killer Queen”, and keeping John Lenehan busy with some intricate, cocktail-lounge pianism.
Which is more than Nicola Loud was given in the third movement, an expressively amorphous medley of “Who Wants To Live Forever” and “Save Me” – couched in harmonies whose Lark Ascending-type ambience failed to uncover a deeper meaning with the songs. Loud did what she could with the material, and duetted wistfully with cellist Tim Gill, but may well have felt short-changed with her contribution. On to the fourth movement, a scherzo in which “Bicycle Race” was given a Bernstein refit, draining the song of its off-the-cuff cheekiness in the process.
By now, whether through conviction or simply the desire to make the Queen connections as audible as possible, Kashif had abandoned integrating the songs into a coherent structure in favour of a more straightforward arrangement. Hence the literal treatment of “Bohemian Rhapsody” at the start of the fifth movement, segueing into the macho-camp of “We Will Rock You” and the pomp of “We Are The Champions”, replete with a choral contribution which is pure kitsch. The sixth movement followed on as a grandiose coda to the whole, culminating in a heaven-storming rendition of “Who Wants To Live Forever?” as the work drew to a stadium-sized conclusion.
So, plenty to enjoy and be entertained by, and if the enterprise was lacking in subtlety – well, what were the band themselves all about? Except that Queen were among the most versatile and sheerly professional of all outfits during their two decades of activity; impressing, if not by the depth of their music, then by the audacity with which they checked out styles and genres while keeping their vast audience guessing but enthralled. Inevitably, perhaps, little of that audacity was evident in Kashif’s Symphony – and, as Brian May, Roger Taylor and Freddie’s mother received a standing ovation, the feeling of music being institutionalised was palpable.
Word had it that May might repeat his Golden Jubilee coup de théâtre on the roof of the Festival Hall as a post-performance recessional. But it was not to be …