Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Charities Philharmonia @ St John’s, Smith Square, London

6 October 2007

St John's Smith Square

St John’s Smith Square (Photo: St John’s Smith Square)

The Charities Philharmonia, formed just a year or so ago, is a coming together of artists both professional and recently graduated to make music with, as the name would indicate, all proceeds going to charity.

Fortunately, this worthy aim is backed up by fine musicianship under the inspiring baton of Michael Alexander Young and their autumn concert saw a programme of Austro-German pieces superbly played by these predominantly youthful musicians.

Arnold Schoenberg’s Op. 34 is an intriguing 8-minute vignette of 1930 entitled Accompaniment to a Film Scene (Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene), written for a film that never existed. This appears to make it a conceptual work, although quite what scenario it might have accompanied is difficult to comprehend. Like much of this fascinating composer’s output, it is a lot easier to admire than enjoy, certainly at first hearing.

Bearing the daunting subtitle of threatening danger, fear, catastrophe, it is a terse and distorted outpouring that summons a pretty bleak landscape, whether natural or human. The orchestra painted an atmospheric picture of this opening piece which led into the equally desolate but far more emotionally engaging world of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

The Prelude and Liebestod, performed so recently by Bernard Haitink and his Amsterdam forces at the BBC Proms, was played with hardly a break, a jump of four and half hours of music. While appearing quite contained on the podium, Young led an impassioned performance that sent shivers down the spine even if the finale of this great music-drama loses so much without the vocal part.

The concert ended with a quite splendid performance of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. Although a work that is overtly programmatic, it gains from being listened to stripped of the associations that can make it seem twee and chocolate-boxy birdsong, chattering brooks and dancing shepherds. Pretty it may be and as sunny as Beethoven ever got, but some of the sounds, heard as abstract rather than pictorial, are as strange as almost anything the composer wrote. The constant repetition of short phrases in the first movement, the development in particular, can be quite startling.

The orchestra’s articulation of the various episodes from Beethoven’s pastoral adventure was crystal clear and Young brought out the dancing rhythms with tremendous exuberance and, with some lovely work from the woodwinds in particular, this fresh approach to a well-worn symphony was a joy to hear.

Proceeds for this year’s concerts go to the NSPCC.

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