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S & H Concert Review

Mendelssohn, Tavener, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Haydn: Fairest Isle (celebrating Britain’s place at the heart of European musical life ) English Chamber Orchestra, Roy Goodman, John Mark Ainsley, Josephine Knight, Tallis Chamber Choir. March 8th 2004 (ME)

This curious programme inaugurated Roy Goodman’s appointment as the ECO’s Principal Guest Conductor: as the orchestra’s Artistic Director remarks, it demonstrates his very broad vision of music – it also shows a most pleasing desire to ‘educate’ the audience, in the nicest way possible, not only through showing the connections between works but providing brief but informative introductions to them. Given the title one might perhaps have expected Britten’s realization of the lovely Purcell piece, ‘Fairest Isle, All Isles Excelling’ to have begun the proceedings, but that place was taken by a lively rendition of Mendelssohn’s ‘The Hebrides’ performed from the new Urtext edition, edited by Christopher Hogwood: it was full of little touches which brought this over-familiar work to new life. Tavener’s ‘Syvati’ followed: this setting of a Slavonic prayer used in Russian Orthodox funeral services was about five minutes too long for me, but the solo ‘cello (played with exquisite lugubriousness by Josephine Knight) intended to represent ‘the Priest or Ikon of Christ’ has some lovely phrases.

Britten’s ‘Nocturne’ is not as often performed as his earlier ‘cycles’ – perhaps it is too Mahlerian for some, or perhaps it is, as the composer himself suggested, too strange and remote, but given the right musicians it makes as powerful an impact as any of his vocal music. John Mark Ainsley is the ideal Britten interpreter, with a sensitivity to the text and an innate musicality which result in performances which are poetic without being overblown, dramatic without being overstated. I thought him a little reticent in the opening lines of ‘On a poet’s lips I slept’ and there were a few moments during ‘What is more gentle than a wind in summer?’ when the voice / flute / clarinet balance was not quite right, but otherwise this was beautifully nuanced, technically assured singing: high points were the crystalline diction at ‘Lest aught she be disturbed, or grieved at all’ and the whole of ‘When most I wink,’ where both singer and instrumental soloists allowed us to hear the emotional complexity of Shakespeare’s sonnet and the facets of its ambiguity which Britten so finely draws out.

Shakespeare was again the inspiration after the interval when the Tallis Chamber Choir performed Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music’ with an especially fine soprano solo – a lovely silvery voice, very distinctive and sweet, but sadly the lady was not credited in the programme. The choir finely evoked the disdain of the poet for ‘The man that hath no music in himself’ as well as the ‘sweet harmony’ of the closing portrait of the moon. A less obvious connection with Britain was shown in Haydn’s ‘Oxford’ Symphony, no. 92: the composer visited Oxford in 1791 to receive an honorary D.Mus. and conducted this symphony in the Sheldonian to mark the occasion: it had, however, been composed in Paris and Bavaria. No matter: it’s one of those works which, each time one hears it, reminds one yet again how under-rated Haydn’s later symphonies often are. Goodman and the ECO gave it a performance of real commitment and style, the sprightly Allegro full of sparkle and the Ländler – like Minuet lively but never coarse. The second movement, the lovely Adagio, is one of Haydn’s most beautiful, and the orchestra drew out all the sweetness of that wonderful D major melody.

A very well planned, devotedly delivered concert, received with rapt attention and enthusiasm by a large but not capacity audience, with critics noticeably thin on the ground – the usual lack of a glamorous aura to surround this kind of music / performers, one supposes: but then the so-glamorous Andreas Scholl the other week, although he attracted hordes of hacks in terms of the press list, seems only to have been noticed by a couple of them…


Melanie Eskenazi




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