Classical and Opera Reviews

English Chamber Orchestra @ Cadogan Hall, London

29 January 2008


This concert at the Cadogan Hall saw the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Paul Watkins, their new Associate Conductor.

Watkins, also a successful solo cellist (notably at this year’s BBC Proms), is an exciting conductor with a fluid, authoritative style.

Here, I felt excited for the future of the partnership, if sad that this was not a more exciting start in London to it.

Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E flat is a popular number, and one that both invites a pleasing performance and makes difficult the providing of a fresh and thrilling one. The concerto was written in 1796 for Anton Weidinger, who had recently developed a more advanced trumpet, tonally inferior but capable of producing notes otherwise impossible on the instrument: chromatics and trills could now be used.

Tuesday evening’s soloist, Alison Balsom, instantly captured the attention with her choice of dress, an elegant cream number, stylishly ruffled, awfully nice: even the eternally restless woman sat behind me quelled her fidgeting to gasp “Oh my God, what a dress! Oh wow!” Balsom played the concerto cleanly, providing pealing virtuosity in the first movement’s cadenza, a sweepingly lyrical view of the central Andante and palate of delicately shaded tonal colours in the Finale. However, the quieter dynamics could threaten to lose direction, while up above, the sound could feel pinched. Yet this was not what troubled me. I felt that, physically, this soloist never submerged herself in the performance, lacking presence on the platform and expressiveness in the face: each solo instrumental line seemed prettily played but alone, not tied to an overall, deeply-felt human interpretation. But then this interpretative quality will come soon for Balsom, whose performance here was never less than stylish and clear, while the orchestra provided ebullient, tightly-knit accompaniment.

The other concerto on the programme, Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 from 1933, benefited from the piano playing of Igor Levit, who drew an increasingly angular, fiery sound from his instrument, in the appassionato climax of the Lento an exploration of the piano’s varied sonorities, the lower registers of harsh granite. As the programme correctly noted, the trumpet here is treated similarly to a solo instrument, and Balsom (after a change of dress) returned to the platform, bringing with her a barrage of shiny, vibrant trumpet tones, designed to thrill. The final movement saw the two soloists engaged in musically comic combat, Watkins’ tempi driving the drama forward irresistibly.

The suite from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella produced from the strings a rich timbre, but perhaps one that was too meaty, lacking the precision of touch to illuminate Stravinsky’s neo-Classical constructions. The instrumental personality on display was variable, while an occasional lack of fluidity in the conductor’s beat could hold back when the music demands the opposite. Haydn’s Symphony No.84 in E flat, meanwhile, was nicely played, never perfunctorily, but nevertheless somewhat lacking a dramatic pulse, the ensemble well coordinated but the beat occasionally laboured. The work was composed for a vast European orchestra, including forty violins and ten double basses, and this small ensemble never quite glittered.



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