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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Enescu, Chabrier , Khachaturian, Elgar: RCM Sinfonietta / Leonard Schreiber, violin / Neil Thomson, conductor. RCM Concert Hall, London. 29.06.06 (ED)

Romanian Rhapsody in A major, op.11 no 1
Chabrier: Habanera
Khachaturian: Violin Concerto
Elgar: Symphony no 1 in A flat major, op.55

This concert marked Neil Thomson’s last appearance as Head of Conducting at the Royal College of Music. Alongside his work as an orchestral trainer and pedagogue of some repute he has also built up a sizeable international career. Romania has been a frequent destination for Thomson both for conducting and musicological activities in recent years; opening the present concert with Enescu’s first Romanian Rhapsody signalled the importance of Romanian music and music-making for him.

Enescu’s rhapsodies, and the first one in particular, can suffer from hackneyed routine in interpretation. Indeed, it was this in part that made Enescu grow to loathe the two early works that overshadowed his later more adventurous and challenging compositions. Thankfully, recent years have seen some wider acknowledgements of Enescu’s true value as a composer and performances of the rhapsodies are not as common as they once were. Thomson’s reading of the first rhapsody could never be called dull; he encouraged playing that whirred, wheezed, crashed and banged with abandon though the piece’s sequence of genuine folk and folk-inspired melodies. In some performances the strings can overly dominate proceedings; Thomson however rightly found much of interest and colour within the interplay of the scoring for winds and brass.

Chabrier’s brief Habanera provided a much needed interlude within the concert’s first half. Given with some delicacy and care for the subtle textures given to the flute and clarinet lines in particular it showed tender lyricism to a greater extent than other items in programme would allow for.

Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto announced itself with punchily articulated rhythms that left no doubt that this was to become a big-boned and imposing interpretation. Leonard Schreiber, as soloist, was at one with Thomson’s approach. Schreiber’s tone carried a roughness about it that might have been out of place in other works, but here helped to give his performance edge and directness. The lengthy first movement cadenza was given with wry sardonic humour that brought David Oistrakh, the work’s dedicatee, to mind. The middle movement Andante sostenuto was notable for the maintenance of such broad-breathed cantabile playing from the orchestra’s strings in unison. Thomson’s exploitation of dynamic extremes at times took forte playing to the limit of what the hall’s tricky acoustic could take without resorting to out-and-out brashness. The third movement displayed tempered lyricism and wit in equal measure, more memorable however was Thomson’s masterly handling of the transition from D minor to D major to reach a most emphatic conclusion.

I have never thought Elgar the most natural of symphonists, indeed it is worth noting that Elgar himself took some time to come to terms with his compositions in the genre. Thomson launched the opening movement by adopting a broad tempo that amply brought out the ‘nobilmente’ inherent in scoring. The RCM Sinfonietta played with impressively integrated and surging tone that carried a majestic sweep to the line. That the orchestra had been well drilled was only too evident, as was the fact that their playing fell squarely within accepted Elgarian tradition. The second movement was taken at a brisk striding pace with the brass, tuba in particular, and timpani coming well to the fore when required. That the third movement adopts a different technique in the writing from the other movements was noticeable in Thomson’s interpretation. Cast very much in the mould of luxuriant and bold slowly evolving phrasing, as opposed to the quick succession of unrelated ideas found elsewhere, the RCM Sinfonietta again announced their natural Elgarian abilities. The closing movement had a grandeur about it that bespoke confidence in the playing.

Throughout the programme Thomson showed a tendency towards flamboyancy of gesture, to the point of bringing to mind Stokowski or Bernstein. On this of all occasions his enthusiasm could certainly be understood and it rubbed off onto the RCM Sinfonietta in no small measure. The close of the season sees some orchestras turn in faceless performances, but he RCM Sinfonietta produce playing of vitality to rival any professional orchestra. That Thomson will be sorely missed at the RCM goes without saying – but I hope he will be invited back on a regular basis. On the basis of this concert, those occasions should not be missed.

Evan Dickerson



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)