Thomas Carroll Returns Home in a Double Capacity, as Soloist and Conductor

13/10/2017

Mozart, Schumann, Mendelssohn: Thomas Carroll (cello), Orpheus Sinfonia / Thomas Carroll (conductor), The Great Hall, Swansea University, 11.10.2017. (GPu)

Mozart – Overture to Don Giovanni K.527
Schumann – Cello Concerto in A minor Op.129
Mendelssohn – Symphony No.4 in A major Op.90

The Orpheus Sinfonia is an orchestra made up of young professionals, formed to help outstanding performers make the transition from conservatoire to professional stage; it is supported by a charity, the Orpheus Foundation, whose Patrons are Sir Antonio Pappano and Dame Judi Dench. The orchestra’s Artistic Director is cellist Thomas Carroll, born in Swansea. In the year in which the Swansea Festival for the first time presented some of its concerts in a venue not long completed and opened, the Great Hall on the new second campus of Swansea University, it was fitting that one of these concerts should feature Carroll, back in his home city as both cello soloist and conductor, along with his young orchestra from London. Carroll left Swansea, when still a boy, to study at the Yehudi Menuhin School, his time there being followed by studies in Salzburg. Now a busy soloist around the world, Carroll is also Professor of Cello at the Royal Academy of Music. In the years since he first left Swansea Carroll has returned several times to give concerts but, so far as I am aware, this was the first occasion on which he was both conductor and soloist.

The evening’s music-making was very enjoyable, full of youthful verve and insight, even if, understandably, nothing startlingly revelatory happened. The overture to Don Giovanni packed a sizeable punch and created a strong sense of the ominous. The (small) brass section was particularly impressive here and the overture had a powerfully dramatic close.

In Schumann’s Cello Concerto, Carroll was an impeccable soloist, building in emotional intensity as the three movements (played, of course, without a break) progressed. He managed to direct the orchestra simultaneously, aided by the excellent Akiko Ono, leader of the orchestra for this concert (and a fine one, too).

In the opening section of the Concerto (‘Nicht zu schnell’), Carroll captured both the ‘inward’ lyricism of the first theme and the passion of the second. The relatively brief second section (‘Langsam’), which in a brief spoken introduction Carroll described as “a love letter to Clara”, was interpreted beautifully by the soloist, and the balance between orchestra and soloist, as well as the choice of tempi, seemed, to my ears, beautifully judged. Schumann originally planned to describe the work as a ‘Concert piece for Cello and orchestral accompaniment’ and such phrasing implies what Carroll (with assistance!) did very well, keeping the orchestral sound transparent and, save at certain key moments, keeping the orchestra subordinate to, and essentially supportive of, the soloist.

The emotional warmth and intimacy of the slow movement is eventually transformed into something more ‘aggressive’ and troubled in the last movement (‘Sehr lebhaft’), which has more sense of emotional conflict than its two predecessors (it is tempting, but perhaps too simplistic, to relate this to the composer’s mental ill-health). Carroll was especially eloquent in the accompanied cadenza before the final coda, which ends the work in quite affirmative fashion (though I have never been very sure that any sense of triumph has been ‘earned’ in terms of the musical argument that has preceded it).

Post-interval we were treated to a vivacious reading of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony. The opening of the first movement was filled with the joy of discovery, of a northern European first encountering “the land where the lemon-trees bloom”, as Goethe puts it (this symphony is, in some respects, the musical equivalent of Goethe’s Italienische Reise). The sonata form of this movement keeps the joy within the bounds of formal discipline, but does nothing to diminish it, or reduce its intensity. Carroll and his young orchestra were heard at their very best here, with the orchestral sound perfectly balanced and the ‘stride’ of the violin theme complemented perfectly by the woodwinds. The second movement was rather less successful, however; the religious solemnity of the Neapolitan procession depicted by Mendelssohn being somewhat lacking. At times, indeed, the effect came dangerously close to being merely ponderous. The ensuing minuet began in a manner almost as much Haydenesque as Mendelssohnian and the whole movement was delightfully light. Youthful joy and exhilaration dominated the Finale, a demonstrative opening leading into ebullient dance rhythms, before an emphatic close, all played/conducted with appropriate panache.

The evening had been filled with fine music and with that special pleasure that comes (without being at all patronising) when one hears young musicians playing superbly. Swansea could certainly be proud of its returning son.

And the new venue? Having now heard two concerts in the Great Hall, the acoustics seem fine to me, although having the audience seated several feet beneath the stage containing the performers never, for me, makes for a really happy experience. Still, the Hall is very definitely a valuable, and much needed, addition to the musical amenities of the city.

Glyn Pursglove

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