Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Chamber Orchestra of Europe @ Barbican, London

22 April 2007

Even when a Thomas Ads composition does not convince, it is hard to miss the imagination present.

Three Studies after Couperin, here given its UK premiere, meanders aimlessly along, with luxurious pedals awkwardly draping themselves around the French composer’s tight Baroque lines.

But the scoring is seductive, with flecks of muted trumpet and tuned percussion dancing around the melody of Les Amuesemens, violin pizzicati underlining woodwind arcs in Les Tours and, finally, the surging elemental power of low strings and timpani in L’Ame-en-peine.

It was a wasted opportunity, and Ads’ Violin Concerto is a much more propulsive affair. The opening movement’s moto perpetuo suggests a veer into John Adamsian minimalist trappings, but as the violin ascends to almost unbearably stratospheric heights, the orchestra flowers into an intricate tapestry of bubbling woodwind and strings.

The chamber music textures excite; movement two’s jolting lurch into the deepest bass registers is quite unlike anything else in the canon. Anthony Marwood‘s intonation was suspect and his tone frequently gritty, but he attacked phrases venomously and veered like a rollercoaster through his registers. It was hard to imagine a more committed performance from the soloist, though I felt that Ads could have pushed more in the third movement: what he presented was half-hearted and anticlimactic.

Such criticisms could hardly apply to the opener, Haydn’s 70th Symphony, which for me was the highlight of the concert. Ads conducted as he composes – trying to draw every textural colour and contrast from the material – and the result was a gutsy, unusually dynamic performance. Where to start? The driving rhythm of the Vivace con brio, the edgy contours in the Andante and the stupendous Finale fugue all made one sit up and take note. Only occasionally did Ads try to find too much in the score and cover up vital lines with overcooked countermelodies: the rest was superlative.

Finally, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe pushed themselves to great heights of instrumental virtuosity in Beethoven’s First Symphony and provided much to enjoy, not least the piquant violin tone, confidently biting woodwind and concentration from every player. I could criticise Ads for his unclear beat and superfluous gesturing, but his interpretation was driven and weighty. For once, the gushing critical response is not pure rhetoric: the chap is quite a talent.

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