St Johns, Smith Square, London: Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Overture: Street Corner
Concerto for Orchestra
The Lark Ascending
Falstaff Symphonic Study, Op.68
Nadia Wijzenbeek (violin)
The Salomon Orchestra
Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London: Thursday, 10 February 2005
Concerto for Orchestra
Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
Concerto for Double String Orchestra
Luis Parés (piano)
Royal College of Music Sinfonietta
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 10 February, 2005
Venue: St. Johns, Smith Square, London & Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London
Michael Tippett’s symphonic works are not so regularly encountered in concert halls – so the chance to hear two performances of the Concerto for Orchestra within two days was not to be passed over.
Composed in 1962-3, Concerto for Orchestra is among the most radical of Tippett’s works in its deployment of resources; furthering the so-called ‘mosaic’ construction of “King Priam” – whose thematic material is encountered in new and unexpected contexts – to the extent that a ‘concerto of sub-orchestras’ may be felt as the outcome.
The performances in question – by, respectively, an amateur and a college orchestra – were complementary in many respects, and their strengths and weaknesses gave a real insight into the difficulties posed by Tippett’s requirements. That by the Salomon Orchestra was notable for security of balance (which, in the difficult acoustic of St John’s, is no mean feat) – enabling one to savour the ingenuity with which, in the first movement, the composer alternates and superimposes contrasting instrumental groups. Not that the Royal College of Music Sinfonietta (not to be confused with its Symphony Orchestra) was necessarily lacking in this regard, but Neil Thomson had little of Adrian Brown’s feel for continuity as the combinations generate their own natural momentum. In Brown’s hands, moreover, the analogy with the ‘jam session’ precept, such as Tippett imported from modern jazz, was made startlingly and engrossingly apparent.
The central Lento is among Tippett’s most rapturous creations – giving the lie (if one were needed) to any notion that the composer sacrificed his ‘ecstatic lyricism’ in the radical overhaul of his idiom at the end of the 1950s. The arch-like agglomeration of intensity, as first the violas, then violins join the cellos and double basses in reaching the movement’s apex, places a severe strain on intonation – such as was intermittently apparent in the Salomon performance. The Sinfonietta managed this without loss of precision in pitching, though the forward overall dynamics of the strings was a little unrelieved.
With the finale, the orchestral constituents come together in a vivid display of Stravinskian energy, and it was again the Salomon which better conveyed the formal contrast between the vibrant main material and the distanced emotion of the central woodwind canon: an innocuous-sounding interlude which returns to round off the work – in an inconclusive way that Tippett was to hone over his remaining three decades of creativity. If Thomson brought a greater sense of culmination to the reprise of the main rondo, it was Brown who realised more completely the ‘non-ending’ of those final bars: the point at which Tippett’s questing musical process is left hanging, as it were, in mid-air.
Of course, the impact of each performance was in part conditioned by the context of the programmeoverall. Given as part of the RCM’s very welcome Tippett retrospective, “In Aquarius”, the Sinfonietta concert also featured the composer’s earlier but in no sense unidiomatic Concerto for Double String Orchestra: its outer movement’s trenchantly articulated and the elements of jazz and folk-music finely inflected by Thomson (a shame, though, about the spurious pause before the finale’s final chord), with the Lento’s Beethovenian pathos thoughtfully and affectingly shaped – despite occasional unsubtle use of portamento.
No doubt the main draw for many of the Sinfonietta concert was the opportunity to hear the Venezuelan pianist Luis Parés. His account of Beethoven’s First Concerto evinced an undoubted command of the keyboard, and his agility in the visceral passagework of the outer movements was matched by some exquisite playing in the Largo. In the first movement, Parés could have made more of the biggest of Beethoven’s three cadenzas, and he was too willing to give the orchestra its collective head – which, given the boorish insensitivity with which Thomson dispatched tuttis and much of the dialogue, was a mistake he will surely not repeat in future concerto appearances. Such pianism really does deserve better support.
The Salomon concert also featured a young soloist. Currently a ‘Philip & Dorothy Green Young Concert Artist’, Nadia Wijzenbeek gave an enticingly phrased account of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending – at its best in the work’s first half, though with a finely judged tapering of tone near the close. Dynamics throughout the performance seemed too loud – not necessarily the fault of the musicians, as maybe Brown should have encouraged them to play slightly under the indications that are given in the score.
Brown began the evening with a fizzing account of Rawsthorne’s once-popular Street Corner, perhaps over-emphasising the ‘Ealing comedy’ side of the piece as opposed to its more wistful aspects. Equally robust was his conception of Elgar’s Falstaff – though here the occasional dwelling on certain overtly descriptive aspects was not allowed to detract from the symphonic cohesiveness of the piece as a whole. In particular, the two interludes which endow the latter stages with much of their pathos were sensitively handled, and if the earlier escapades emerged just a little episodically, the denouement was as decisively characterised as the epilogue was touchingly rendered. As in Strauss’s Don Quixote, this is ‘programme music’ which makes a greater impact the more a conductor brings out its underlying abstract design – something of which Brown was keenly and gratifyingly aware.