The London Chamber Orchestra Salute Shakespeare – and Walton

23/10/2016

Mendelssohn, Walton: Bertrand Chamayou (piano); Simon Harrison (narrator); London Chamber Orchestra; Choir of Royal Holloway; Choristers of New College Oxford/Christopher Warren-Green (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 20.10.2016. (RB)

Mendelssohn – Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor Op 25

Walton –  Henry V:  A Shakespeare Scenario (arr. Christopher Palmer)

The London Chamber Orchestra opened their 2016-17 season of concerts under the baton of their principal conductor, Christopher Warren-Green. The theme of both the main concert and the preceding free concert was the Shakespeare 400th anniversary celebrations. The free concert (which I did not attend) featured a performance of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in an arrangement by Paul Max Edlin for string quartet. The principal work on the programme for the main concert was Walton’s music to Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V in the arrangement by Christopher Palmer.

The distinguished French pianist, Bertrand Chamayou, joined Warren-Green and the LCO for the opening work on the programme, Mendelssohn’s G minor Piano Concerto. Chamayou released a recording of Mendelssohn’s solo piano music to critical acclaim in 2008 so he has considerable form in this music and his performance of the G minor Concerto did not disappoint. In the opening movement Chamayou seemed to find the perfect balance between the fiery and more lyrical elements and I loved the very clean and incisive way he handled the rapid-fire passagework. Warren-Green and the LCO provided a light and sympathetic accompaniment and there was an excellent balance between orchestra and soloist. The LCO’s inner strings produced a gorgeous tonal sheen in the opening section of the slow movement before Chamayou entered the fray with a very sincere and heartfelt melody. The filigree passagework was played with exquisite touch and Chamayou showed us what a fine chamber musician he is in some tight exchanges with the LCO. The LCO’s horns heralded in the last movement in emphatic fashion before Chamayou entered with rapid-fire arpeggios. While there is no programme for this concerto, the finale is very much a return to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Chamayou allowed the music to bubble along in an enchanting, exhilarating way before launching into the turbo-charged coda. This was very fine playing by Chamayou and his performance stands comparison with some of the greatest interpreters of this work.

William Walton was the last of the great Classical film composers and he collaborated with Laurence Olivier on three films of Shakespeare plays: Henry V was their final collaboration. The aim of the film was to boost morale in the closing stages of World War II and it was dedicated to ‘the Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain’. A musical suite was made from the film score by Muir Matheson who had conducted the soundtrack. However, a subsequent conversation between Christopher Palmer, the actor Christopher Plummer and the late Sir Neville Marriner resulted in a reworking of the music for narrator, orchestra and chorus. Palmer’s reworking includes almost all of Walton’s original music from the film and the narrator recites large chunks of the text from Shakespeare’s play and has the unenviable task of breathing life into numerous characters in the play.Simon Harrison, who is a regular performer at The Globe, took on the role of the narrator for this performance.

There are mixed views on Christopher Palmer’s reworking of Walton’s score but Warren-Green and his collaborators certainly made a strong case for it at this concert. In the opening Prologue the LCO moved seamlessly from Walton’s neo-Romantic idiom to the arrangements of Elizabethan keyboard music which the composer integrated so successfully into the score. The comic interludes in the Boar’s Head, the sorrow of Falstaff’s demise and the tenderness of ‘Touch her soft lips and part’ were all depicted vividly and with a rich range of colour. The LCO’s brass and percussion conjured up some stirring martial music and the Agincourt section had power and grandeur. Simon Harrison proved a consummate narrator, both in the way he depicted the unfolding events and the manner in which he brought Shakespeare’s cast of unforgettable characters to life. Warren-Green’s direction was adept throughout and I was impressed with the way in which he was able to pull the orchestra, choir and narrator together in such a seamless way.

Overall, this was an auspicious opening to the LCO’s 2016/17 season and a fitting tribute to the Bard.

Robert Beattie           

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