Opera + Classical Music Reviews

English Chamber Orchestra/Roy Goodman/Hilary Hahn @ Barbican Hall, London

14 July 2006

Is it just me, or is there a Nationalist agenda here?

Why, in a ‘Mostly Mozart’ concert, did the programme feature only one work by Mozart, and one each by Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Mendelssohn?

Whatever the case may be, the performance certainly bodes well for the music scene in England.

Under the baton of conductor Roy Goodman, the English Chamber Orchestra kickstarted the evening with Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro.

For a ‘small’ work, it is amazing how much effort the ECO put into it. Every vibrato was placed perfectly, all the bowings, the intensity, and the dynamic control were simply immense. The passing of the musical line from one section to another was seamless, and the accents were so meticulously placed that I wonder how much time the orchestra spent on rehearsals. In the Allegro, the orchestra picked up its tempo, but somehow Goodman managed to ensure that they did not climax or peak too early. If only they did not spill their three-note chords! In all, however, it was an immense start to what would be an even greater evening.

American violinist Hilary Hahn was up next, performing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor. The Mendelssohn concerto is probably the pedagogical violin concerto, and more often than not, performances of it are usually highly technical and considerably unmotivated. That was not the case for this evening. Hahn’s impressive bow-arm technique and tone made the opening melody even more poignant than normal, and although her vibrato could have done with a bit more variation, her technique was inch-perfect. Those long lines just came and came and I kept wishing the movement wouldn’t end.

The ECO supported extremely well, with great dynamic control and performing almost as one unit, except for the winds, whose intonation needed a bit more inspiration. The second movement, famously difficult for the fact that the solo violin dominates most of the melody, was given the occasional touch of portamento from Hahn, and the devilishly tricky middle section with double stops amidst a dialogue with the winds was well brought out. The last movement was played much faster than I have ever heard it, but it only added to the tension and virtuosity of the performance. As the work ended, Hahn and the orchestra kept picking up the tempo, finishing the work with an gigantic culminating bang.

Performing Vaughan-Williams’ The Lark Ascending won Hahn a Grammy, and I am a little ashamed to confess that for the second time in my life, I was actually moved so much by the music in a concert that tears came to my eyes. All due credit to the ECO winds for having sorted out their intonation problems; the performance was just amazing. The song of the lark was so pristine, and Hahn put so much work into it that even her open strings sounded expressive. The soft long notes in the orchestra strings were just the right dynamic and touch. Whatever gripes I had about missing the first night of the Proms went away after this performance.

Hahn then played an encore, performing Bach’s D minor Sarabande. Once more she showed her versatility in playing three different styles for three different works. Apart from the fact that her intonation and technique was perfect, she also did not splash her chords, and her violin playing was so clean that I could not believe I was not listening to a studio recording. Look out people, this lady is going to be big. Very big.

To end the evening off, the ECO performed the only Mozart work of the night the Jupiter Symphony. It was a very spirited performance, and much better than the Elgar in terms of control and intensity. But unfortunately, performing right after Hahn’s amazing solo sort of took the gloss off the Mozart, and in truth most of the audience left midway through the symphony. Nonetheless, the highly energetic performance was tremendously intense, especially in the breakdown of the music in the last movement before the recapitulation, where every single orchestra player looked so pained that the music was disintegrating. It was an almost perfect performance. If only there were some way of keeping handphones silent and disallowing people to cough during performances.

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