Sunday 26 August 2007

Ades and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe

I can't remember the last time I noticed programming this adventurous at the International festival, that at least was the thought that ran through my mind when I first saw these two concerts nestling on the first Monday and Tuesday of the festival. Actually, that isn't quite true. When the Cleveland Orchestra made their memorable visit in 2004, one of their three programmes consisted of two pieces by Birtwistle (The Shadow of Night and Night's Black Bird) to which, despite being paired with Schubert's great c major symphony, and there being nothing else on for it to compete against, almost nobody came. While Ades has a fair enough following in some quarters, particularly the Aldeburgh festival of which he is the director, and notable champions (such as Simon Rattle), he surely wouldn't be welcomed with open arms by the conservative festival audiences.

I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to see the house somewhere between two thirds and three quarters full, this despite the fact we were hearing what was surely the Scottish premier of Ades' violin concerto (something I had been very much looking forward to since first hearing it on a radio broadcast from last year's Aldeburgh festival). Perhaps this is less surprising given the weight of 'safe' material in the programme. This began with a spirited reading of Beethoven's Namensfeier overture. They raced through it. Ades is an interesting conductor to watch, he didn't use a podium and so seemed to stand right in amongst the orchestra. He danced somewhat (but unlike some who do, his every move seemed to bring an intended response), indeed at times he jabbed his baton as if fencing with the players. It was a thrilling start.

This was followed by Stravinsky's Pulcinella suite. I shall confess now to not being the greatest fan of the composer, but they played it with great aplomb and it was enjoyable. However, the meat came after the interval. Anthony Marwood, for whom the concerto was composed, was the soloist. The work is short (around twenty minutes), yet much as Sibelius's seventh symphony, takes you on a far longer journey. The themes are circular - the three movements being named Rings, Paths and Rounds and this shows. It's a difficult piece to describe. It seems to tug you this way and that and while it isn't necessarily tuneful, if you let it, it washes over you and is utterly enthralling. Ades creates some lovely textures and colours. Soloist, orchestra and conductor played it wonderfully and left only one question: why has this not been recorded commercially. Indeed, Marwood's playing reminded me of the wonderfully captivating performance we had last year of Szymanowski's violin concerto from Frank Peter Zimmermann and the BPO under Rattle. We cheered loudly, but it did not meet with universal approval. Mr Flashlight, sitting next to us (so christened for his strange habit of reading the programme only after a piece had started, and then doing so with his small pocket torch) was not amused. He refused to clap and said loudly at the end that all modern music was rubbish. I wouldn't have minded so much, but he did have to be shushed during the concert - if you're reading this Mr Flashlight, you might not appreciate a work, but please allow those of us who do to enjoy it.

The programme finished with a favourite of mine: Sibelius's third symphony. Ades did not hang about, indeed, if anything, his pace was a little too frantic. However, the orchestra held together. It was a reading of marked contrasts, as when he did choose to slow down, the tempi were as broad as before they had been brisk. This was also not a cold reading (whether or not this is a good thing will be a matter of individual taste, personally, I love the icy chill to which Sibelius's music lends itself, but Ades convinced with his warmer take). The slow middle movement, where so many readings get lost, was played beautifully and Ades brought out the different musical lines well. The finale was thrilling, though he could have found a little more of the sort of sweep that someone like Davis brings. Mr Flashlight approved this time - that was more like it, he said (or something along those lines). Perhaps someone ought to point out to him that at one time, approximately a hundred years ago, this too was modern music and there was probably some stuffy figure reading his programme note with a candle and muttering about what a disgrace it was.

The following night the orchestra returned for a French programme. Again this was well sold (although, as it turned out, the programming was less adventurous). The concert began with Rameau, of whom I have never been a great fan, and his Les Indes galantes: Overture. Certainly it was enthusiastically played, and listening it confirmed in my mind that Michael Tumulty's complaint in the Herald against the previous evening's performance of blurred musical lines was nonsense. However, the work was, like other Rameau I have heard, rather samey and overstayed its welcome, as far as I was concerned. This was followed by Ades, though not really: his Three Studies after Couperin. This is the most accessible of his work I have heard (as it is tuneful), though Ades plays fast and lose with tempi and creates some lovely orchestrations. This is a charming piece, but I might have liked to hear something a little more daring.

The first half closed with Berlioz's Les nuits d'ete. Toby Spence sang beautifully and as is always a good sign, after a verse or so into the second song, I was so transported that I gave up following the words in programme. Ades made fine accompanist, the delicacy and precision that are hallmarks of his conducting serving him well. If anyone has a recommendation for a good recording, I would love to hear it. The second half was somewhat more disappointing, bringing us Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin and Bizet's symphony in C. Both were very well played, and diverting enough, but I can't help feeling that neither is a particularly great work and their absence from my CD collection is not a hole I am in any hurry to fill.

Some good things then, and a very worthwhile visit. I hope they return in the future, and perhaps with a slightly more adventurous programme.

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