Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra

Oberon – Overture
Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra
Scènes pittoresques
Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27

Sven-Jöran Schrader (bassoon)

Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra
Jonathan Butcher

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 21 April, 2007
Venue: St John's, Waterloo, London

Rachmaninonv’s Second Symphony has become such a favourite – and no wonder with its lush sonorities and gorgeous tunes. It is strange to remember that 50 years ago the work was represented by so very few recordings, one being from Alfred Wallenstein and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra – heavily cut and in mono! Now, before each performance, expectations are raised because of such wonderful orchestral sources as Philadelphia and St Petersburg.

The Westminster Philharmonic does not pretend to aspire to that luxury class of orchestral paradise. But Rachmaninov offers plenty of opportunities for any competent ensemble. These were, in the main, grasped by this well-drilled orchestra despite some sour moments of intonation, which bedevilled the whole evening in fact.

Jonathan Butcher is not the most demonstrative conductor; he resembles the English-reserved type associated with Sir Adrian Boult rather than the highly emotional style of Sir Simon Rattle. When the basics of orchestral discipline have to be achieved Butcher’s clear beat and feet-on-the-ground manner no doubt pays off with the players. But surely there should be a little more sign of emotional engagement when listening to (and watching) a performance of such a Romantic work as Rachmaninov’s Second symphony.

This was, nevertheless, a satisfying view with no particular insights. Indeed many expressive moments simply disappeared in the general sound that is created in the setting of St John’s, Waterloo. The glorious clarinet solo at the beginning of the slow movement was beautifully played although a touch too loud.

This somewhat cavernous building was not the right place for the opening item, the overture to Weber’s “Oberon”. After a hesitant start the players simply dissolved into a mush of sound allowing very little of Weber’s sophisticated orchestration to be properly heard.

The two middle items bought welcome relief both to the ear and to a sense of exploration. Elgar wrote his Romance when hard at work on his Violin Concerto and Second Symphony. This short work contains a snapshot of the glowing radiance and subsumed melancholy found in both those works. The soloist, Sven-Jöran Schrader, played the unassuming part with a degree of feeling for the many layered textures heard from the orchestra.

In his biography of Elgar, Michael Kennedy writes about Massenet’s influence. “His harmonies often recall Elgar”. So it was an astute choice to have the rare opportunity of hearing both composers side by side.

Jules Massenet was an opportunist who gave the public what it wanted. His Suite No.4, Scènes pittoresques, is so full of good tunes and uplifting sounds. If the orchestra lacked the ultimate in refinement it still possessed enough panache to project the four trifles that make up the Suite in which Butcher relaxed and encouraged his players to enjoy themselves.

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