A Varied Programme Expertly Performed by Oliver Zeffman and the Melos Sinfonia

29/06/2016

Dutilleux, Haydn, and Rimsky-Korsakov: Martyn Jackson (violin), Bartholomew LaFollette (cello), Melos Sinfonia/Oliver Zeffman (conductor). Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s, London, 25.6.2016. (MB)

DutilleuxSur le même accord

Haydn – Cello Concerto no.1 in C major, Hob.Viib:1

Rimsky-KorsakovScheherazade, op.35

I have begun to warm to Dutilleux’s music in his centenary year. It had not properly ‘spoken’ to me before, but Sur le même accord certainly did on this occasion. So named on account of the six-note chord introduced at the opening, which provides the material for what comes thereafter, Sur le même accord benefited greatly from ardent advocacy from Martyn Jackson and the orchestra. Jackson’s declamatory pizzicato opening presented a storyteller: almost as if he were telling us ‘Once upon a time…’. Premonitions of Rimsky-Korsakov already – or should that be echoes? Thinking of Russian composers, Prokofiev often came to mind, although so too, to a lesser extent, did Berg; there were definite post-war episodes, though, not least an almost Messiaen-like marimba intervention. Jackson’s richly seductive line sounded as first among equals, for not only were there several other splendid solos to enjoy (for instance, from clarinet and cello), but the work’s dealing, in Dutilleux’s words, ‘with the abstract relations within the orchestral universe’ came strongly to the fore.

There has never, so far as I can recall, been a time when warming to Haydn’s music proved a problem for me. This performance of the C major Cello Concerto, with Bartholomew LaFollette the outstanding soloist, reminded one of so many of the virtues of that great European. (Only a fool would ascribe to him ‘nationality’; alas, there are many fools around.) The first movement opened warmly; it was stylishly, meaningfully articulated, properly dynamic in its conception of form. That was even before the solo entry. LaFollette’s playing showed much the same characteristics. And what a splendid sense of line there was to be heard: gorgeous yet never self-regarding in tone, clean and clear. Crucially in Haydn, this was a performance to have one love the music – and indeed its composer. Civilisation seemed still to be with us, or at least near, the elegance of LaFollette’s playing, not least in the cadenza, putting me in mind – and no, I am not exaggerating – of Tortelier. Wonder of wonders, we heard an Adagio that was an Adagio. It sang beautifully, honestly; I almost wished our Scheherazade would start again. A slightly subdued opening to the finale had me wonder to start with. It proved, however, to have been a subtle trick, much in the spirit of the composer, for suddenly, without vulgarity, there came full orchestral sound and vigour. There was much play like that – and in many other ways. It made me listen – and what a joy it was here to listen.

Rimsky’s Scheherazade was our work for the second half. Zeffman was clearly in his element – although he had been no less in the first half. I was intrigued by the way this symphonic suite proved as much a study of ‘relations within the orchestral universe’ as the Dutilleux piece had; both, of course, benefited greatly from the excellence of Martyn Jackson on violin (now as leader). Its opening was formidable, the Melos Sinfonia’s brass more than a little ‘Russian’ in their vibrato. The response, needless to say, was silky and seductive. Subtle dynamic gradations, not in the least pedantic, proved as expressive as harmony and orchestration, Sinbad and Prince Kalender coming vividly to life. Glorious string sheen, even from a relatively small band, helped no end; much the same might be said for perky woodwind. There was exoticism, of course, but it always felt – indeed, was – directed. A keen sense of narrative, whether or no it might actually be put into words, was always present. Transformation of themes proved both a pictorial and an intellectual delight. If Liszt inevitably came to mind, so too did the future, of both Strauss and Stravinsky. There were symphonic correspondences; quite rightly, however, this remained a suite rather than failing as an aspirant symphony. For all its supposed renown, this is not a work we hear very often in the concert hall; I am not sure that I have ever done so before. There is all the more reason, then, to applaud so fine a performance as this.

Mark Berry

 

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