Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Howling @ St John’s Smith Square, London

14 June 2019

St John's Smith Square

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

A brief paragraph in the minimal programme for the Anstieg Symphony Orchestra’s concert on Friday described the connection between the two main works (Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King and de Falla’s El Corregidor y la Molinera) as being their 20th-century retrospective commentaries on England and Spain in the early 19th-century; the inclusion of Mozart’s 1777 concerto for two pianos supposedly represented the music of this period. For all kinds of historical and musical reasons the collection didn’t work well, but the audience – mostly supporters of the orchestra and its young conductor, Roc Fargas i Castells – were enthusiastic in their applause, despite having little information about the works performed. Their fervour, however, was not misplaced, as there were some cracking performances.

For the Mozart, the players – drawn from the Cambridge student body – deployed an odd mixture of ‘original’ and modern instruments, (a couple of valveless horns nestled amid a modern string section), but ‘crisp’ and ‘nuanced’ were the watchwords for the orchestral performance, Fargas i Castells exerting tight control over tempo and dynamic (the delicate oboe opening of the second movement was particularly lovely). The pair of modern grand pianos at the front of the platform were probably not what Mozart imagined, and they tended to dominate the orchestral sound, but they were given some accomplished workouts by Jon Urdapilleta and Ignasi Cambra, who displayed a sure interpretation of the concerto, some excellent co-ordination, and a deal of brilliant technique (the sparkling busyness of the third-movement cadenza was executed with impressive synergy).

Maxwell Davies’ challenging Eight Songs for a Mad King brought the composer to public attention in 1969. A portrayal of George III at the height of his madness, it requires technical skill and a can-do approach from the players, as well as a bravura performance from the singer – both of which it received. From the get-go the music is chaotic yet exacting, but the six instrumentalists held their nerve through the opening gradual mis-match of beats in ‘The Sentry’, the virtuosic string lines and demented harpsichord riffs in ‘The Country Walk’, through to the howling king being bass-drummed off the stage in ‘The Review’. Thomas Bennett owned the stage in his role as George, and brought not only a masterly vocal talent to the part (ranging from falsetto screams to throaty growls) but some excellent acting; William Ashford’s minimal-yet-effective production required Bennett to engage with the audience, attempt to catch fish, and don a pink feather boa and sunglasses, all of which he worked deftly into the performance – the latter (to deliver the vampy foxtrot section of ‘Country Dance’) adding a wittily camp note to the king’s ravings.

The mime El Corregidor y la Molinera (‘The Magistrate and the Miller’s Wife’) was shelved by de Falla when he was commissioned by Diaghilev to expand its instrumentation and personnel into the ballet ‘The Three-Cornered Hat’. This revival of the lost piece proved what a delight it is – the small scoring works effectively to illustrate the antics of a cast of three (two dancers and an actor) who part-dance and part-mime the quirky morality tale. The relationship between the score and the action was tightly controlled, so that every gesture (from the miller playing an imaginary piccolo to the pompous, bassoon-accompanied gait of the magistrate) was illustrated. Huge applause goes to Gabriel López Ruiz and Lucía Cardeñoso Gigosas, the two dancers, whose fandangos, seguidillas and farrucas were flawlessly executed in a stunning and fluid performance complemented by creditable acting from Joe Sefton, a lovely but brief soprano moment from Carla Satrustegui and intuitive playing from the orchestra.

buy Anstieg Symphony Orchestra MP3s or CDs
Spotify Anstieg Symphony Orchestra on Spotify

More on Anstieg Symphony Orchestra
Howling @ St John’s Smith Square, London