Christmas concerts tend to fall into two groups, the overly saccharine kind that are quickly forgotten or those that maintain performance values of merit that last in the memory. This concert was definitely one of the latter kind.
Christopher Petrie’s Christmas Carol Fantasia was a set of arrangements for chamber orchestra of seven international carol tunes. Under Petrie’s unobtrusive direction the sequence gradually unfolded, taking the listener on a musical journey from Ukraine via Romania, Germany, France, Ireland, Wales and finally to England. There was atmospheric warmth of tone in the strings throughout, and further imaginative touches in the orchestration that ensured the contrasting characters of the melodies stood out. Particularly noteworthy were the effective combination of celeste, oboe and marimba in Silent Night and leader Tanya Sweiry’s solos in the Irish carol. A slight slip of intonation from the horns at the start of the Coventry Carol marred the enjoyable grouping, which presented its moments of joyous material with confident but nuanced playing.
The five vignettes that comprise Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite might have been written with children in mind, but they showcase the essence of his artistry as an orchestrator and, under the right direction, make plain the fact that music for children can simultaneously delight and have a lightly worn sophistication about it. Sleeping Beauty’s Pavane – little more than a paragraph of delicacy for flute, harp and strings – was played with charm. Little Tom’s Thumb had a lingering air of nostalgia with the melody captured in the unforced ambiance of the full string body. Little Ugly Girl, Empress of the Pagodas proved most appropriately a fantasy of exotic expression with its splashes of orchestral colour deployed with a lightness of touch and certain dramatic flair under Petrie’s attentive baton. The contrasting characters within Conversations of Beauty and the Beast were readily conveyed: the former enticing in her lilting femininity from the violins whilst the latter stammered out a sentence from the cellos and double basses. In conclusion, The Fairy Garden was given with ensemble playing of finesse that captured the childish wonder Ravel intended.
Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto might be one of the great warhorses of the violin repertoire, but Remus Azoitei’s playing of it urged one to listen to it afresh and made me question how critic Eduard Hanslick could have ever thought it to be “music that stinks in the ear”. The opening Allegro moderato found Christopher Petrie propel the orchestra with much needed dynamic enthusiasm, securing tonal depth from his players. Remus Azoitei exuded authority with his initial entry and this was unwavering throughout. It is not that often though that one finds an artist shading down the solo line to give as intimate an account of Tchaikovsky’s score that found as much of interest in the intricacies of passagework rather than just revelling in the robust and grandiose passages. Indeed, Azoitei’s playing of the cadenza further proved the point he made that with phrasing and playing of innate musicality and intelligence Tchaikovsky’s concerto can still prove a work of great interest and imagination. The woodwind chorale that began the Canzonetta was played with depth of feeling and established an appropriate mood for the second movement. Remus Azoitei imbued his solo line with judicious use of vibrato to achieve a brightness of tone that was immaculately elegant and virtuosic in the best sense of the word. A greater sense of contrast was to be experienced in the closing movement, Allegro vivacissimo, in which its initial orchestral and solo interactions fizzed like newly opened champagne. With support from Petrie and the orchestra, succeeding passages drawn from Russian and peasant dances were gradually built by Azoitei towards an ebullient conclusion, all the more effective for having its emotions carefully controlled until the very final passages. On this evidence, it’s surprising that Azoitei does not have a greater solo career, since he is an artist of individuality with much more to say than many of the more often encountered soloists. Hopefully it will not be long before that changes for the better, and certainly the enthusiastic reception his playing received reinforces the point.
As a solo encore Remus Azoitei offered The fiddler, the opening movement from Enescu’s Impressions d’Enfance. With the experience of an artist for whom Enescu’s music is second nature the specific blend of character portrait-painting of an old Romanian violinist and heart-on-sleeve feeling for his instinctual art was expressively and movingly conveyed.
Further details of Cadogan Hall concerts can be found at cadoganhall.com