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Rachmaninov, Sibelius, Debussy and Janáček: Giovanni Guzzo (violin), Fulham Symphony Orchestra, Marc Dooley, St John’s, Smith Square, London, 20.11.2010 (BBr)

Rachmaninov: The Isle of the Dead, op.29 (1909)
Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor, op.47 (1903/1904 rev 1905)
Debussy: Four Symphonic Fragments: Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien (1911)

Janáček: Suite: From the House of the Dead (1927/1928) (arranged by Frantisek Jilek)

This was a demanding programme, both for the orchestra and the audience; passion, angst and chaste beauty. Rachmaninov’s
Isle of the Dead was dramatic and intense, containing some powerful playing and with Dooley keeping a firm hand on the slow, inevitable tred of much of the music, he built some fine, almost overwhelming, climaxes. There was despair and tragedy here, but the music never became mournful, and when the violas intoned the dies irae Dooley created an oasis of mystery, an inevitability after the storm. At the end, we had crossed the River Styx and we knew that there was no turning back. This was a fine interpretation.

Giovanni Guzzo is one of those young violinists who take the virtuoso challenges of a work like Sibelius’s
Violin Concerto as if they were mere five finger exercises, throwing off the intense technical difficulties with an ease which is breathtaking. Tonight, Guzzo displayed the sweetest of lyrical voices when required, but wasn’t afraid to give weight to his playing and produce an earthier tone, especially when he dug into the strings for the stamping theme of the finale. The long first movement was held together with an agreed logic between soloist and conductor – this is an odd concoction and needs special treatment if it isn’t to sound diffuse – which worked perfectly in bringing about the many changes of direction and the argument was clearly delineated. I could, happily, have sat throughout this again had the performers decided to give the whole work as an encore.

Four Symphonic Fragments taken from Debussy’s incidental music for Gabriel d’Annunzio’s drama Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien make a most satisfying suite of pieces, written in the composer’s best mystical mode. Much of this music, not the play, of course, is of almost virginal purity; restraint and understatement being the order of the day. Dooley and his players understood this and delivered a straight forward performance which allowed the music to speak for itself and grow naturally as it progresses along its course. Here was proof, if proof were needed, that less is more and this kind of approach works to the advantage of the music. I wonder if Dolley can be persuaded to think about giving Debussy’s complete music for the play, with soloists and chorus? That would be a highlight of the season.

To end, music from Janáček’s final opera,
From the House of the Dead, after Dostoyevsky. I didn’t know of this suite until tonight and I am glad to make its acquaintance for it distils some superb music into a form which can be heard more easily than the full opera. It’s not an happy story, nor is it a comfortable experience in the theatre, but it isn’t a nihilistic work, and it ends with a note of real hope. And hope and belief in the fact that things can only get better fill the music which conductor Frantisek Jilek arranged here. Certainly, without knowing the name of the piece, and on the strength of the work alone, one would never guess at its origins. So a very positive end to a very exciting and emotionally rewarding show.

Marc Dooley and his orchestra are doing very exciting work in thrilling programming and long may it continue for theirs is one of the most interesting seasons on offer.


Bob Briggs


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