Wednesday 8 May 2013

Arensky Chamber Orchestra - auspicious debut

Jennifer Pike
Jennifer Pike
How do you re-think the classical concert? The Arensky Chamber Orchestra is a young chamber orchestra which besides bringing a new ear to the music, is bringing a fresh eye to the way concerts are presented. For their debut at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London's South Bank on 7 May 2013 under their artistic director, conductor William Kunhardt, they worked with lighting designer Simon Gethin Thomas and actor Matthew Sharp. In other circumstance the results might have been a trifle gimmicky, but the sheer freshness and brilliance of the performances of Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, movements from Francois Couperin's Concerts Royaux and Beethoven's Violin Concerto (with violinist Jennifer Pike) was such that concert felt new-minted. An extremely auspicious South Bank debut indeed.

The concert started with Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin. Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937) wrote Le Tombeau de Couperin as a suite for piano between 1914 to 1917, based on the movements of a baroque suite. He orchestrated it in 1919, omitting four of the movements. The individual movements are dedicated to friends who died in the First World War. During the war Ravel worked in , and this apparently light-hearted suite was his response. Other composers of the time who participated in the war were similar; works such as RVW's Pastoral Symphony and Arthur Bliss's Morning Heroes also lack the tortured response that we might have expected.

Ravel based the structure of his pieces on baroque music, with the Forlane of his suite having a structural similarity to the Forlane from Couperin's Quatrieme Concert Royaux. This inspired the Arensky Chamber Orchestra to perform the Ravel interleaved with movements from Couperin's suites.  Francois Couperin (1688 - 1733) wrote his Concerts Royaux in 1714/15 for the French court. Though the music includes dance movements, the works were intended for listening rather than dancing, being written at a period when listening to chamber music was in vogue. Couperin published the pieces without any definite orchestrations, so they can be played by harpsichord or a small group of instruments.

The orchestra started with Ravel's Prelude, this was followed by the Prelude from Couperin's Troisieme Concert Royaux and the Forlane from the Quatrieme Concert Royaux. The Forlane and Menuet from Ravel's suite came next, then the Menuet en Trio from Couperin's Premier Concert Royaux and the Rigaudon from the Quatrieme Concert Royaux and finally the Rigaudon from Ravel's suite.

The orchestra play standing up and Thomas's lighting placed them in higher relief than usual, with the lighting changing to concentrate on the small group of players who performed the Couperin movements. Kunhardt conducted the Ravel from memory, and the Couperin was played as chamber music without a conductor. The movements flowed seamlessly from one to another to form a fascinating whole.

What struck me from the opening notes of Ravel's Prelude was the clarity of sound which the orchestra brought to the music. This was something I kept coming back to during the evening; it wasn't the sound of a group of young players saying listen to me, aren't I brilliant, but they brought a nice clarity of definition and freshness to all the evening's programme. Being a small band (just 21 strings), meant that the woodwind instruments were placed in relief without struggling. The strings also played without excessive vibrato which brought a keen sound to Ravel's neo-classical world, but also gave the Beethoven a nice edge.

Kunhardt's speed in the Prelude was quite brisk, but the players brought a lovely fluidity to the movement, with a feeling of ebb and flow. Couperin's Prelude played by violin, oboe, viola and cello displayed great charm with a fine clarity of line. Both movements had in common some very mellifluous oboe playing indeed.

Couperin's Forlane was crisply and elegantly rendered by two violins, viola and cello, before Ravel's Forlane in which the whole orchestra gave the movement a lovely lilt, but with a bit of bite to it. Rhythms were admirably bouncy and again we had some fine wind solos. The oboe came to the fore in Ravel's Menuet in combination with a warm string sound. The neo-classical feeling of Ravel's writing was brought out, with a good clarity of texture. Kunhardt and his players took a flexibly view of pacing and there was a nice feeling of rubato, with lots of little easements of tempo complemented by beautiful shaping of the phrases.

Another pair of Couperin movements came next. The elegant Menuet en Trio with a warm toned flute solo plus violin and cello, then the crisply performed Rigaudon with an elaborate violin part, plus a further violin, viola and cello. Finally we had an elegant account of Ravel's Rigaudon with some strong dynamic contrasts.

The second half of the concert opened with a dramatised reading of extracts from Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament given by Matthew Sharp, with discreet string accompaniment. This was highly moving and very powerful, and it was a shame that instead of progressing seamlessly to Beethoven's Violin concerto, the lights had to come on and we applauded the entry of the soloist.

But this is my only complaint, Jennifer Pike gave a poised and highly musical performance of the concerto. Kunhardt's speed in the first movement was steady, allowing time and space for some very fine grained orchestral playing. But this wasn't a low-key performance, the orchestral introduction was extremely strongly characterised.  Pike entered with a lovely singing tone and a strong sense of line. She played with a nicely focussed, fine tone which was well complemented by the orchestra's clarity of line. Playing with a chamber orchestra meant that Pike did not have to work hard on balance and there was a constant feeling of singing in her playing with a lovely refined tone. Technically she was clearly on form, but never overly showy. This wasn't a bit romantic performance, both conductor and soloist seemed to be in agreement. Though there was a relaxed feeling of interplay between soloist and ensemble, both had their dramatic and incisive moments. Pike contributed a brilliantly incisive cadenza. And the ensemble ensured that the dramatic narrative of the work, with the repeated E flat figure, kept flowing.

After an understated but characterful introduction from the orchestra for the second movement, Pike came in with a beautifully limpid solo, displaying a nice flexibility of line and of tempo without pulling the piece about too much. Fluidity, flow and singing line were the characteristics of this movement. Pike combined her refined tone with intensity, and there was a strong feeling of dialogue with the ensemble. The ending, with the combination of the high, bright solo line and the timpani, was magical.

The finale was lively and, at times, almost bumptious. Pike commented afterwards that she had many friends in the orchestra and the performance seemed to reflect this as there was an easy interaction between soloists and the individual solo lines in the orchestra. Pike played a vigorously brilliant cadenza and the movement finished with a strong feeling of lively drama. This wasn't a portentous or pretentious performance, it had a youthful confidence and vigour, a litheness and clarity in both the soloist and the accompanying textures.

After extremely warm, and well deserved, applause Pike treated us to an encore, the Preludio from Bach's Partita no. 3 for solo violin.

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