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Dukas, Tchaikovsky and Holst: Marc Corbett-Weaver (piano), Sonitus Choir, Orpheus Sinfonia, Toby Purser, Cadogan Hall, London, 22.9.2009 (BBr)

Dukas: The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1897)
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor op.23 (1875)
Holst: The Planets, OP.32 (1914/1916)

A nice show of popular classics, given by an exciting young orchestra in support of the Multiple Sclerosis Trust, made a good start to my 2009/2010 concert going season.

Paul Dukas’sjustly famous The Sorcerer's Apprentice got things off to a good start with a pianissimo to die for. This was the most exquisite sound imaginable, and it was thrown into sharp relief when the fast movement got underway. The bassoons gallumphed along, the trumpets were menacing, the horns bold and the strings rich and full. It was a well characterized performance, full of humour, especially the loud declamations from the sorcerer himself. One had the feeling that everyone involved was having a good time. Certainly, everyone in the hall was as they listened to it.

I was less pleased with the Concerto. It is a true virtuoso work needing a pianist who has the stamina to carry it through for a good half hour, and in this respect Marc Corbett-Weaver was an admirable soloist. However, I found his performance to be unrelenting: to be sure he could master the most difficult passages with ease, but he seemed unable to relax, and even the delightful and playful, scherzo–like episode in the middle of the slow movement was somewhat leaden. The expression I found myself thinking of was steel fingers – meaning the attack he employed too often. The orchestra was good, but not too inspired, in support. The opening tune was as full blooded as possible, but the subsequent scherzando writing was laboured at times. The slow movement was graced with some gorgeous flute playing – I have no idea who the player was for the programme did not contain a list of players, but she was superb. The finale was all fire and brimstone but didn’t have the cumulative effect that it should have had. I found myself losing interest and then I realised that my attention had wandered. If this work doesn’t grip one then something must be wrong.

The Planets was a different matter altogether. Purser and his players really got to grips with this piece and played it for all they were worth. Mars was given with such bloody minded ferocity that the hairs on the back of my neck were standing to attention throughout. It was noisy, unforgiving and relentless. Fantastic! Venus was full of limpid beauty, the various solos from violin, cello and horn were perfectly placed and, although the woodwind displayed an icy tone, this was perfect for the mood of the piece. Mercury wasn’t quite as fleet footed as one would have hoped but it was clear and precise in its execution. Jupiter with its big tune, was very imposing indeed, but the outer sections, which are all jollity and - dare I say it? - bluster, but in the nicest way, were never allowed to get out of hand. Saturn was Holst’s favourite movement and one can see why – it has a depth of feeling which doesn’t appear elsewhere in this work. Purser kept the slow tread throughout and it was an harrowing experience – just as it should be. Holst’s sorcerer, Uranus, was another galumphing fellow but with a real sting in his tail. As with Mars, this was a hair raising experience, made all the more frightening by the gradual building of a huge climax from the full orchestra. As Neptune started the female chorus processed into the gallery and weren’t the real space maidens they are supposed to be, for not only could we see them, there was no distance between them and us to lend any enchantment. The orchestra was sustained in its gentleness, the most delicate sounds from celesta and harps most welcome here, but at the end, where the choir is left alone, supposedly fading into the vast distances of space, until we can no longer hear them, they merely turned their backs to the audience and we could hear the music stop, which robbed the ending of all mystery. This was such a shame for it spoiled a very well thought out and played performance.

As an encore we were given a breezy performance of a short suite of music from John Williams’s score for Star Wars, the overt banality of which made one realise just what a good composer for the cinema Jerry Goldsmith was.

At times there was a superabundance of enthusiasm from the players and certain details, such as the bells in Uranus, were all but inaudible, but this can easily be forgiven for the sheer immediacy of the performance. Toby Purser was fully in control of his players and drew the very best from them in the two orchestral pieces.

Bob Briggs

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