It was sad to see Cadogan Hall so ill attended for this, the English Chamber Orchestra's 45th Anniversary concert, because the musical standards were high indeed. Our greatest living conductor, a superb young soloist and an eclectic programme helped make this a memorable birthday celebration for the ECO.
To kick off with Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was rather daring for a gala of this type, but the experiment paid off thanks to vibrant playing from all concerned. The piece was first performed in 1937 and is typical of this composer's innovative approach to composition. The scoring is for a double string orchestra, a large group of percussion instruments and celesta, plus harp and piano. Jonathan Burton opines in the programme note that Bartók grouped these latter two under the heading of 'strings'; however, it is quite plain that the composer treats them as percussion instruments, more important as rhythmic components in other words.
This is certainly how Sir Colin Davis treated the piece, giving it buoyancy and thrust. The fugal first movement was beautifully phrased from the opening string subject onwards, showing restraint until the music built to a huge climax; the ensuing quiet close was breathtaking. Davis brought a wonderful exuberance to the second movement, whose contrapuntal textures suit the firm attack of this ensemble perfectly.
Bartók's evocation of a nocturnal scene in the third movement was complemented by eerily-played piano chords and high suspended clusters from the celesta, the composer showing off his unusual orchestration at its best. Things really got going in the last movement, however, which instantly conveyed the verve and spirit of the folk dance on which it is based. Davis brought a lot more panache to the piece than did Boulez when he last conducted it with the LSO at the Barbican.
Mozart's Piano Concerto in C, K.503 was the second item on the programme. This is real ECO fare; their recording of the complete concerti with Uchida and Tate became a classic almost instantly. The combination of Davis and Freddy Kempf in this concert was somewhat different, of course, but none the less delightful for that.
Kempf's musicality is extraordinary, whilst his controlled emotionalism is unusual in such a young musician. Would that Evgeny Kissin could combine his head and heart with such apparent ease whilst playing the piano! In both tutti and solo passages Kempf played with sensitivity and insight, and the cadenza passages were all striking displays of technical dexterity.
His spontaneity of style was apparent from early on. This seems to suit the music, which was of course written as a performance vehicle for the composer to play. Cheekiness, lyricism and passion were all facets of Kempf's manner, and he clearly has a strong rapport with Davis. The orchestra once again showed great attack, with none of that undesirable preciousness which is so often apparent in Mozart performances nowadays. They were especially impressive in highlighting the clashes between the major and minor modes of the first movement, and the colours brought out by Davis from the wind instruments throughout were astonishing.
Concluding the programme was a striking performance of Haydn's Symphony No. 103 in E flat, The Drumroll. Davis' empathy with this music is obvious and his careful control of the forces made this a special performance, one which emphasised the composer's fascinating instrumentation.
Rarely have I been so aware of the distribution of melodic and gestural material through the whole ensemble in a Classical symphony. The drumroll which opens the piece was duly ominous in this rendition, and the cellos and double basses relished their unusual prominence in commencing the main theme of the movement.
Horns, clarinets and trumpets peeked through the melodies with wonderful sonority, and the whole thing had a gripping edginess. The double variations in the second movement were well focussed, with the chromatic inflections in the melodies emphasised rather than repressed (as they sometimes are). The minuet of the third movement brought more colours still, with the dialogue between horns and solo flute/clarinet particularly vivid.
The final movement typified the whole experience: everyone had something to say. It was a pleasure to see an orchestra whose every member was so openly enjoying himself or herself. Precision and clarity were mixed with a vibrant sound and open emotion to create a performance that was satisfying on almost all levels.
Cadogan Hall is an ideal venue for this chamber ensemble, and the orchestra deserves a much better attendance level for its future concerts in the series; the Mozart 250th Anniversary celebrations in 2006 should be essential for any serious lover of Classical-period music.
BUY Mozart - Piano Concerti Vol 2 (ECO/Tate)