City of London Sinfonia

Symphony No.34 in C, K 338
Vaughan Williams
Flos campi
Nigel Osborne
Flute Concerto
Mass in C, Op.86

Lawrence Power (viola)

Sharon Bezaly (flute)

Rebecca Evans (soprano)
Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzo-soprano)Thomas Walker (tenor)
Matthew Rose (bass)

BBC Singers

City of London Sinfonia
Richard Hickox

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 17 August, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Richard Hickox. Photograph: Greg BarnetThe symphony’s opening ceremony misfired; the brass was rather tubby even if the City of London Sinfonia generally gave a clean, clear account of the opening movement, its forward drive breaking no speed limit. This was assured, lively Mozart playing – a pleasure to listen to. The second movement – an Andante for bassoon and strings, the bassoon anchoring the bass – gently purveyed a flowing soft melody, in the manner of a serenade. The finale was alert, brisk and lively.

The sections of Flos campi (Flowers of the field) sit rather uneasily together. The viola soloist comes to the fore every now and then, in a contribution not greatly ear-catching. Lawrence Power played unassumingly, receding adeptly and often (as prescribed) into the background. The small choir sang softly and wordlessly, with one moment of more assertive power (well-taken here). The suite comprises six movements. A quotation from the “Song of Solomon” heads each one – in the relatively sensual Vulgate version. The performance was reverential and rather sedate, not experienced with immediacy. I did not hear a voice “husky with passion” (an appraisal from one of the composer’s female admirers). The harmonies are, for the most part, softly and safely in the British choral tradition. Just occasionally – as in a dialogue between viola and oboe – the musical language became rather more arresting.

Nigel Osborne’s Flute Concerto is also rather well-bred in its emotional range – as if by a ‘Times Crossword’ man of sensitive restraint. Osborne himself refers to it as the most classical’ of his works of the time. Kenneth Walton calls it “finely sculpted” and Richard Alston choreographed it for Ballet Rambert. In the first movement, seven different speeds criss-cross with seven transpositions of the Phrygian scale. That is, the iridescent string sound, while sufficiently dense to obscure the solo flute for much of the time, seemed of itself quite transparent and almost delicate. During the slow movement, “Phrygian scales unfolding in the strings” interplay with “gently gliding microtonal flute melodies”. The finale offers concertante flute, oboe violin and cello.

Sharon BezalyThe solo flute, audibly or barely audibly, covers a range of sounds – brilliant classical tone together with ravishing references to East Africa and South East Asia. Sharon Bezaly swayed sinuously to the variegated rhythms, whilst drawing an astonishing range of dulcet tones and half-tones from her glittering, golden flute. She is a virtuoso with flair and aplomb.

Beethoven’s “Mass in C” is small beer when set beside the “Missa solemnis”. Yet in its time it was considered daring – as Beethoven considered it himself, when aged 37. Count Nicolaus Esterházy, who commissioned it, considered the work “unbearably ridiculous and detestable”. It has an intimate, pastoral ‘Kyrie’ of great “gentleness” (Beethoven’s description). The ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’ have a muscular energy and lurch urgently in dynamics, tonality and register. Key changes are dramatic. The style ranges from the mysterious, quasi-modal to stunning unison in ‘primitive’ slabs. All this reached out towards the ardently personal ‘Agnus Dei’ with its agonised cries of “miserere”, devotional and muted.

You would not guess much of this from Hickox’s performance. The BBC Singers and the soloists rallied round, giving a soft, smooth sound. I particularly enjoyed Thomas Walker, the tenor soloist. The whole affair was rather genial, with nothing to ruffle the feathers. Count Esterházy might have been appeased into taking a more benign view of the work – into viewing it as ‘idiosyncratic’ rather than “detestable”, as ‘lying easily on the ear’ rather than “ridiculous”. Indeed, the keynote Hickox sought for the evening seemed to be ‘pastoral’ – of a fairly muscular variety.

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