Thursday 24 May 2012

Orchestra of the Swan at the Cadogan Hall

As a metropolitan London-based concert goer, it is good to be reminded of the superb musical activity outside London. May 23 saw that final of three concerts which the Orchestra of the Swan have been giving at London's Cadogan Hall. The Orchestra of the Swan are based at Stratford upon Avon with residencies there and at Birmingham Town Hall. It is also good to be reminded that good things come in smaller packages, the Orchestra of the Swan is a chamber orchestra which certainly punches above its weight.

Last night, 23 May, at the Cadogan Hall they were conducted by their artistic director David Curtis in a programme of John Ireland and Vaughan Williams. The smaller size of the orchestra (44 players including 24 strings) meant that we got a refreshing different view of familiar (and unfamiliar music). I am used to hearing RVW's Fifth Symphony and John Ireland's Piano Concerto played by larger ensembles, but Curtis and his ensemble made a strong case for the chamber orchestra.

The strings play with a fantastic presence and focus, string tone is crisp, clean and vital. There is no attempt to butch up the tone, there's just no need, they make a virtue of lean and mean and in bigger passages allow the tone to flower. Yes, you do miss the sort of hushed pianissimo which massed ranks of strings can bring, but the strings of Orchestra of the Swan provide a vibrant alternative. And of course, balance is affected with woodwind slightly more prominent. This is a sound-world that I like, without the swamping of the wind sound by a vibrato laden symphonic string section.

The concert opened with a lively performance of RVW's The Wasps Overture with the orchestra buzzing away brilliantly. The big tunes were played with taut poise, opening out nicely at the big moments.

They were then joined by pianist Mark Bebbington for a performance of John Ireland's Piano Concerto. Ireland was 50 when he wrote it and amazingly it was his first major piece for symphony orchestra. The catalyst seems to have been a young piano student of Ireland's, Helen Perkin, who had played Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto with the RCM orchestra. Ireland's relationship with Perkin was personal and professional and this is reflected in the music, particularly the slow movement.

The concerto isn't combative; Perkin had quite small hands and though Ireland revised the piece in the 1950's to accentuate the more bravura passages, there is much more a sense of dialogue than combat. Quite often the piano is accompanied by a small section of the orchestra or even solo. In fact, one of the things that I realised about the work was quite how sparsely some of it is written, though listening to it you don't always realise it, such is Ireland's skill.

Bebbington's performance was far more lyrically muscular than I am used to, casting an interesting light on the piece. Bebbington made you aware of the denser piano textures, which he clearly relishes. Bebbington clearly links the work with that of Bax (whose work Ireland disliked), and there was less of the English pastoral about the performance than some that I have heard.

The other influence, which came over in both piano and orchestra, was that of Gershwin. Ireland did include deliberately jazzy elements in the orchestra (even down to discussing trumpet mutes with a band leader). But some of the more muscular moments reminded me very much of Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F (written five years before Ireland's).

The orchestra accompanied with finesse, and with them also there was a strong feeling for the textures of the piece. In the second movement there were some superb moments, such as the richly textured passage for horn and strings. Bebbington, Curtis and the orchestra gave us a darker, richer account of the piano concerto, one which brought out the variety of influences on the piece rather than concentrating on the English pastoral.

After the interval, Bebbington returned for Ireland's Legend for piano and orchestra. This was intended to be a second piano concerto but it turned into a 15 minute work in which the piano part is rather more concertante than solo. It is a dark, brooding piece which was inspired by a strange, dream-like vision which Ireland had whilst walking on the South Downs. For much of the opening, the piano is restricted to atmospheric arpeggio figures over the orchestra with Ireland creating a dark and unsettling feel to the piece which was relished by the performers. A strange, rather distant dance develops and for the first time the piano texture thickens to something like the solo part in the concerto but a big splashy climax for piano and orchestra gradually evaporates into a modified version of the opening music as Ireland's vision drifts away.

The final work in the programme was Vaughan Williams's Fifth Symphony, a work which was premiered in 1943 when the composer was 71. The piece is noticeably more lyrical than his violent Fourth Symphony and contemporary listeners could have been forgiven for thinking that the old man had settled down and his symphonic career was drawing to a close. They could not have been more wrong, as he would go on to write four more symphonies, none of which could be described as quite settled down or comfortable.

In the Fifth Symphony, RVW used quite a lot of material from his opera The Pilgrims Progress which, during the years 1938 to 1943 when he was writing the symphony, seemed destined never to reach the stage. The symphony is not programmatic and RVW uses the musical material in various ways, but for anyone who knows the opera, key phrases in the symphony (such as the glorious cor anglais solo in the third movement) evoke the opera.

Curtis and his orchestra brought out other links as well. Perhaps I could call it the dance element, but there was something about Curtis's performance which evoked the glorious dances in RVW's symphonic ballet Job, A Masque for Dancing. This isn't a link I'd noticed before but it makes sense and created an interesting slant on the work.

The first movement saw the strings giving a poised performance with some clear string tone and fine lines, and not a few spine-tingling moments. The second movement, with its nice rhythmic pointing, saw some beautiful solos from the wind players. This continued into the third movement, particularly with lovely cor anglais playing accompanied by some surprisingly rich string textures. The finale was pointed and infectious, but not quite as rumbustious as some performances. The movement rose to a very full climax then Curtis brought of a beautiful transition to the coda.

As a conductor, Curtis is not self-indulgent and quite restricted in his gestures (thankfully), but though performances were taut, he let the music flower and breathe where necessary. In style, his performances kept reminding me of Sir Adrian Boult (whose performances I only know from record), though I am not really analytical enough to explain why.

Curtis and his outstanding orchestra, along with Mark Bebbington, gave us some very fine and thought provoking performances of familiar English music. It was a pleasure to hear them in London, though I could have wished that the enthusiastic Cadogan Hall audience had been rather bigger.

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