Manchester Camerata

The Creatures of Prometheus, Op.43 – Overture
Divertimento on Sellinger’s Round
Two Concert Arias:
Chi sà, chi sà, qual sia, K582
Bella mia fiamma, K528
Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93

Kate Royal (soprano)

Manchester Camerata
Douglas Boyd

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 27 July, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Despite the foul weather, a fair crowd turned up for this late-night concert, the Manchester Camerata’s Prom debut. They were rewarded with music-making of distinctly variable quality. The Manchester Camerata’s media-release quotes some extravagant claims for the orchestra: “at least the equal, if not superior to the Scottish and English Chamber orchestras” and Douglas Boyd “is one of the major British occupants of a rostrum today”. On the evidence of this concert both comments are palpable nonsense. What can be fairly said is that the orchestra itself is potentially an extremely good one but held back by a conductor who seems more interested in his own performance than what is actually happening in front of him.

The Prometheus Overture was spruce but distinctly lightweight, not surprising given there were only two double basses; curiously, both here and in the Symphony the timpani player seemed reluctant to use hard sticks.

More engaging, despite some dubious tuning, was the Tippett, five movements based on ‘Sellinger’s Round’, and including quotations from other British composer – Byrd, Purcell, Arne, Field and Sullivan. The opening movement had a particularly good oboe solo from Rachel Clegg whilst the second movement, ‘A Lament’, drew fine, eloquent playing from the strings. Boyd did well with the hyperactive quick music of the central Presto and the weird finale which combines Stravinskian neo-classicism, a mad Gigue, and a reference to Arthur Sullivan; however, he failed to make anything of the ambiguous fourth movement Adagio which lies at the heart of the piece.

Tall and erect, Kate Royal, winner of the 2004 Kathleen Ferrier Award, bears more than a passing resemblance to Ferrier herself. Royal’s contribution was the highlight of the evening, especially the “Bella mia fiamma” in which she demonstrated a fine feel for the opening recitative. This was dramatic, confidently stylish Mozart singing with some magical-half tones in the concluding section. In contrast, Boyd’s conducting, by turns fidgety and frenetic, showed little feel for Mozartian legato and did his soloist few favours, especially in the gabbled accompaniment to “Chi sà…”.

In Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony the balances frequently went needlessly awry. In the outer movements the trumpets were constantly to the fore, frequently playing marginally before the beat whilst the string sound simply wasn’t sufficiently powerful to register in the cavernous immensity of the Royal Albert Hall; this was hardly surprising given the paucity of lower strings: 2 double basses, again, and three cellos. More worrying was the fact that for all his energy Boyd seemed unable to build the music into coherent paragraphs or to generate any longer term momentum.

For all its busy vigour, in this performance the music never seemed to be going anywhere. Nor, despite the modest forces, was ensemble what it should have been, being distinctly ragged on occasion. In the Trio, there was some notably elegant playing from the two lady horn-players; otherwise this was a performance to forget.

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