Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Flanders Symphony Orchestra review – Vienna comes to London via Ghent and Sheffield

21 June 2024

Three works from the Viennese periods of Mozart and Beethoven given worthy presentations by the Flanders Symphony Orchestra and Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus.

Permission received Veronique Vennekens e-mail of 24/6/24

Flanders Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Bjorn Comhaire)

The connection between Ghent-based Flanders Symphony Orchestra and Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus is unclear, but perhaps we should see it as another affirmation – along with the start, this week, of the UEFA Euros tournament – that Brexit didn’t cut all European ties. The two musical entities came together (along with three European soloists and one from South Korea) at Cadogan Hall on Friday evening to deliver a very enjoyable evening of contrasting works by Mozart [Austria] and Beethoven [Germany], all written in Vienna.

While some Mozart opera overtures make excellent concert openers (Figaro, Magic Flute, and even Der Schauspieldirektor, whose attached opera is near-forgotten), perhaps Don Giovanni’s wouldn’t be a first choice. For sure, it’s beautifully crafted, and picks up the mood swings of its opera, but it doesn’t really have that ‘teams jogging out of the players’ entrance’ quality that others have. Nonetheless, under the exacting yet fluid direction of Kristiina Poska [Estonia], the orchestra turned in a convincing account, that, after a slightly shaky start (the intonation of the opening wispy violin passages was a touch uncertain) brought us both mannered elegance from the strings and raw drama from the solid blasts of the brass and woodwind.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 is irrepressibly cheerful; it’s short, very classical in form, and just a whirl of joy from start to finish. ‘Whirl’ was certainly on Poska’s mind, as she took the whole work at a series of tempi, all of which were shades of ‘brisk’. Again, the slightly uninhibited tone from the winds added a welcome bite to musical material that can get a little too saccharine, and there was a no-nonsense quality to their solid rhythmic statements (after a cleverly judged pull-up in tempo) in the first movement. Apart from these occasional gestures, though, Poska largely let Beethoven do the work on light and shade within the symphony. The solid drive of the first movement gave way to a second movement full of fancy (but still zippy) footwork with some nicely controlled skipping passages in the violins interspersed with the odd forte spurt from the woodwinds. The repetitions of the third movement’s charming melody (surely on transfer from the composer’s 6th Symphony) were all delineated with expertly judged changes in orchestral texture, and the horns and clarinets clearly relished their showboating moments in the trio section. The scurrying opening of the fourth movement was perfectly balanced for dynamic and speed, and the subsequent busy attacca from the rest of the orchestra announced a bravura approach full of squirty woodwinds and brass and some rumbustious octave bouncing in the low strings, the whole, occasionally giving way to one of Poska’s brilliantly timed pauses.

“The scurrying opening of the fourth movement was perfectly balanced for dynamic and speed, and the subsequent busy attacca from the rest of the orchestra announced a bravura approach…”

Mozart’s Requiem is a funny old work: a game, one might say, of two halves. The opening sections up to the end of the ‘Sequentia’ are probably nearly all Mozart, and are crammed with the composer’s subtle brilliance. Once Süssmayr takes control of the ball (as is generally thought, from the ‘Offertorium’ onwards) the writing becomes a bit more tum-ti-tum (one can’t help feeling Mozart would have made much more of the ‘Sanctus’, for example).

Flanders SO [Belgium] were joined for this performance by Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus [England] for a generally sturdy performance that took no risks, but delivered everything it needed to. As with the Beethoven, Poska’s tempi were mostly on the perky side that historically informed performance seems to favour. Opting for natural trumpets and valveless trombones was also a good choice – it ensured that there was punch and presence to the brass sound, without it being too brash; this was particularly notable in the ‘Benedictus’ and ‘Agnus Dei’. All in all, the orchestral sound worked well, offering the contrasts in texture, dynamic and tempo that make for a decent performance of the work. Particularly of note were the subdued fruitiness of the two basset horns at the opening (and closing) movements and Søren Brassaert’s faultlessly mellifluous trombone playing for ‘Tuba mirum’.

The chorus gave a very decent account that was nicely co-ordinated and alight with attention to Poska’s requirements in terms of speed and dynamic, albeit that, perhaps, a little extra drama might have been gained from more contrast in the latter (the only truly pianissimo came in the final ‘dona eis requiem’ of the ‘Agnus Dei’). The contrapuntal material presented them with no challenges, so that their fugues throughout were crisp and well delineated in each voice (although perhaps having half of the sopranos and altos positioned in the gallery led to occasionally understrength entries in these parts). If the opening of the ‘Sanctus’ was perhaps a touch underpowered (the subsequent statements got louder), the friskiness brought to ‘Hosanna’ made up for it.

All four soloists have a crystalline quality to their voices that works well for Mozart, and their blend in ‘Recordare’ and ‘Benedictus’ was peerless. The bell-like tones of soprano Yena Choi [South Korea] made a joy of ‘te decet’; Mezzo Kadi Jürgens [Estonia] displays plenty of focused power in the midfield, although her the chest notes were a trifle swamped by the orchestra; Denzil Delaere [Belgium] has a gloriously bright tone, and his stints as Don Ottavio and Mitridate had obviously imbued him with a command of Mozart’s style; bass Christian Immler [Germany] gave a perfect account of ‘Tuba mirum’, the mixture of edge and profundity bringing just the right tone.

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