Prom 29: ECO Not All There

Los esclavos felices – Overture
Piano Concerto in D
Arias from Don Giovanni & Figaro
Symphony No.39 in E flat, K543
Don Quichotte à Dulcinée
The Barber of Seville – Overture & Largo al factotum

Sir Thomas Allen (baritone)

English Chamber Orchestra
Ralf Gothóni (piano)

Reviewed by: Jason Boyd

Reviewed: 10 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Finnish composer-conductor-pianist Ralf Gothóni made his proms debut with this concert. For thirty-five years Gothóni has enjoyed an international career and was the winner of the 1994 Gilmor prize (a kind of surprise award in which instrumentalists deserving of wider recognition are vetted by a secret jury over a number of months) Gothóni has established his presence as an all-round musician – currently in the role of principal conductor of the English Chamber Orchestra.

Dubious of claim of someone being a soloist and conductor of equal calibre (my cynical nature tends to consider such a person a jack of all trades) it was refreshing to see Gothóni in action.Gothóni and the ECO obviously have a good working relationship that resulted in a relaxed, bordering on complacent, performance.

The Overture to the Barber worked as a pleasing warm-up for both the orchestra and the audience. ’Largo al factotum’ found Thomas Allen as much comic as baritone – unfortunately he often got completely submerged by the small chamber orchestra! A low register and fast tempo doesn’t help but he could have made more effort to carry his voice; we lost him in the third Ravel song too. The Ravel, based around Don Quixote, shows him as Dulcinea’s lover, then chivalric warrior and roistering drinker. Interesting rhythmic changes, colourful orchestration and pulsing syncopation gave each song a unique feel. The woodwind and strings entwined beautifully. I’m a little unsure of the use of vibraphone, but it created a certain ethereal texture when punctuating the string chords in the second song – enjoyable, well performed and not out of place in an otherwise classical programme.

There is not much to say about ’Deh vieni alla finestra’ except the duff notes played on the mandolin that stood out like a sore thumb and for which there can be no forgiveness!

Gothóni’s philosophy as a soloist is to “be like a crystal, free from contamination” (FT, 1992). Certainly his rendition of the Haydn was effortless and articulate, his arpeggios and scalic runs were perfectly even and typically ’classical’ with little if any rubato. His cadenzas were original and stylistically sound; the first movement cadenza cleverly anticipating the ’Finale’ through the witty use of clashing grace notes.

Throughout the evening Gothóni smoothed out dynamic contrast – I felt I was attending a rehearsal rather than an emotive polished performance. Technically everything was sound, but there was a lack of vibrancy and sparkle. The Mozart symphony and Arriaga overture were beautifully crafted and lyrically phrased, tempos well judged. Something was missing – the price we pay for technical accuracy that diminishes music’s meaning. It is the responsibility of a performer to play a piece with the anticipation and excitement of something new and stimulating – to excite rather than please.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Thursday, 15 August, at 2 o’clock

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