Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO Chamber Ensemble @ Barbican Hall, London

23 June 2007

The LSO Chamber Ensemble’s Saturday evening concert was an all-French affair, but a varied one.

Rubbing shoulders were the hard Baroque contours and rhythms of Rameau and the lush late Romantic Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel.

And to cap it off, the Carnival of the Animals, Saint-Sans’ masterpiece of dramatic contrast and virtuoso scoring: a work that rarely fails to raise a smile.

But I was not smiling throughout the concert. Rameau’s Dardanus Suite, a series of dances taken from the composer’s initially failed opera of 1739, needs tautness of line, crisp balance and a specific attempt to illuminate the orchestral solos that often emerge from the canvas. Though the ensemble was small, I found no transparency of texture.

Gutsy it was, with violent, surging strings in the livelier movements and daredevil slow tempi elsewhere, but the orchestral balance seemed muddled throughout. More importantly though, these are dances, and where was the snap? In the Tambourin movement, though the percussion solo itself was highly characterful, the outer sections were unremittingly loud and the coordination not pinpoint. And the gentle Moderement that followed ground to a halt with numerous differing ideas about syncopation and an unsteady tempo.

Harpist Bryn Lewis (Principal with the LSO since 1994) was predictably excellent in both Debussy’s Danse sacre et danse profane and Ravel’s Introduction et Allegro, but the latter work here seemed a tad stressed and lacking space to breathe. The violins stood out in the Debussy, the clarinet and flute in the Ravel. Lewis phrased miraculously in both. The performances were fine, but with Simon Rattle’s recent Debussy interpretation at Covent Garden still ringing in my ears, I could not help but feel slightly disappointed.

Then Saint-Sans brightened my evening. The Carnival of the Animals was fantastically played, stupendously characterful and, above all, often uproarious. OK, so the solo cellist used some artificial vibrato near the end of his Swan movement, and the violins weren’t quite on the ball in the Finale, but it mattered not.

Where to start? The Lion – upright as ever, but with an eye-opening undercurrent of cynicism from the low strings and pianist John Alley‘s grumblings in the lower registers of his instrument. The Elephant – a nuanced, splendidly off-pitch double bass solo, made all the more comic when placed astride such po-faced piano accompaniment. The Aquarium – in the reclining violin lines and dappled piano accompaniment, I heard a concentration on purity of sound and timbre that the Rameau had so lacked. The beginner piano duet Pianistes, with its uproariously wonky scales and ‘incorrect’ orchestral harmonies at cadences was more wonky and more incorrect than ever, and all the better for it.

Enough! It was ebullient and exciting, and I doubt that the work could be better played.

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