Escape Velocity

Die Zauberflöte – Overture
Benjamin Wallfisch
Escape Velocity [World premiere]
Serenade in G, K525 (Eine kleine Nachtmusik)
Thamos, King of Egypt, K345 – choruses and incidental music

Fflûr Wyn (soprano)
Christine Cairns (mezzo-soprano)
Christopher Lemmings (tenor)
Stephan Loges (bass)

OSJ Voices

Orchestra of St John’s
John Lubbock
Benjamin Wallfisch

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 2 September, 2006
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

The final Proms Saturday Matinee of this season was a ‘Mostly Mozart’ affair, a couple of evergreens buttressing a rarely-played score, the concert spiced by a premiere for which OSJ’s founder John Lubbock gave way to Benjamin Wallfisch (born 1979) the orchestra’s Associate Composer and an experienced conductor in his own right.

Wallfisch’s 8-minute Escape Velocity (a minute longer than suggested) – for strings, piano, celesta, harp and percussion – which the composer conducted with flair and attracted a virtuoso response from OSJ, made a big impression, has as its starting-point the premise of being able “to propel an object upwards with such extreme initial velocity that as it rises gravity cannot slow it enough to reverse its ascent…”. (A photo of the space shuttle “Endeavour” accompanied the composer’s written introduction.)

As music, Escape Velocity is both atmospheric and suspenseful, and the numerous effects and colours remind of three Polish composers, Lutoslawski and Penderecki and, further back, Szymanowski, the latter summoned in the ecstatic violin solos that were beautifully played by Jan Schmolck. The music’s suggestive power is considerable, not least the allusion of travelling ever-higher (escaping) and the speeding into the unknown. Wallfisch’s notation is explicit, not least with the extensive (two-player) percussion section, which includes nine different and specific cymbals, waterphone, watergong (medium!), and two scaffolding poles (the playing instructions for which are quite detailed). Escape Velocity makes one keen to hear more of Benjamin Wallfisch’s music … just as well, then, that a CD of his music is due in October!

John Lubbock conducted the Mozart items with incision and expression, although both the overture to “The Magic Flute” and ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’ had their mundane passages, the former also lacking solemnity, partly due to the clear-cut Cadogan Hall acoustic (although listeners to BBC Radio 3 would have got a different and misleading indication of the hall’s excellence, the orchestra rendered distant and mushy in K525, for example, which it wasn’t in situ). Despite the workmanlike approach, the Romance of the serenade took wing and the Trio was generously shaped, some passing roughness of ensemble notwithstanding.

OSJ’s commitment was never doubted though and the nearly forty-year association of this zestful orchestra and Lubbock found an extra gear for Mozart’s music for Tobias von Gebler’s “Thamos, König in Aegypten”, an ‘heroic drama’ centred on good over evil.

Mozart’s score went through several revisions. That it is not heard more often is surprising, for there is much that is inspired. One practical problem is that there isn’t a huge amount for the chorus and even less for the vocal soloists – five of the eight movements are for orchestra alone – and the bill for ‘not much in return’ isn’t an accountant’s dream. Nevertheless, this gripping performance brought the music alive in the most positive way.

The score includes two splendid choral sections, here outstandingly brought off by OSJ Voices, and the four soloists were also excellent, with the instrumental items containing some striking invention, not least when anticipating the Commendatore’s arrival (in “Don Giovanni”) and in the imposing scoring (including trombones) and with it “The Magic Flute”. There was much to keep the ears busy. Allowing that by the end of the 40 or so minutes there was a feeling of some ‘padding’ creeping in, the close itself was suitably joyous (of pastoral yet vivacious contentment – light has vanquished darkness). Elsewhere, Lubbock duly realised the drama of the music, and its invention was relished by all concerned, and proved a notable inclusion to ‘Mozart 250’.

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