Young Violinist Plays Bach with Panache and Authority

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mozart, Bach, Barber, Tchaikovsky: Callum Smart (violin), European Union Chamber Orchestra / Hans-Peter Hoffman (director), Guildhall, Plymouth, 1.6. 2012 (PRB)

Mozart: Divertimento in F, K138; Adagio, K 411
Bach: Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041
Barber: Adagio, Op 11
Tchaikovsky: Serenade in C, Op 48

There are distinct advantages living in the South West of England, bounded on one side by the sea, with the gentle peaks of Dartmoor providing a backdrop behind. But the price paid for an altogether less urgent pace of life, some two hundred miles or so from the capital, is that visits by national, let alone international ensembles, such as the European Union Chamber Orchestra (EUCO), are now very much a luxury rather than the norm and, of course, becoming even more so in today’s economic climate.

While there is fortunately no dearth of local ensembles able to perform to a good standard, there is still no substitute for hearing top-drawer orchestras or chamber ensembles playing live.

The EUCO gave its first concerts back in 1981, and has since gained a worldwide reputation as a musical ambassador for the European Union, with concerts in many of the leading halls, from Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Brussels’ Palais des Beaux Arts, the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, to Birmingham’s Symphony Hall.

There was, in fact, an interesting parallel between the biblical parable of the loaves and fishes and the quite superb performance by this youthful chamber orchestra given in front of a reasonably-sized, yet highly enthusiastic audience.

Often it was almost impossible to believe that the lush symphonic string-sound was coming from a mere fifteen instrumentalists, where the special richness of the inner parts often created the illusion that not only strings were playing. Indeed, the contribution from violas and second violins greatly added to the musical impact of the performance.

But while the ensemble was eminently capable of filling the hall with glorious washes of sound, there were equally many moments of hushed delicacy of an almost string quartet intimacy, and particularly when the use of mutes was asked for. Despite the venue’s unyielding acoustic, which can skew the sound in terms of overall balance or swamp it with excessive reverberation, there was a real tautness in the opening Mozart Divertimento in F and Adagio, but linear clarity and individual expression were always allowed free rein.

The EUCO has already appeared three times in the city, and on each occasion has brought with it an established soloist of national and international repute – most recently violinist Nicola Benedetti, then Julian Lloyd Webber (cello), and before this cellist Natalie Clein. On this occasion the soloist was Callum Smart.

Callum first came to the public’s attention when, at the age of thirteen, he won the string section of the 2010 BBC Young Musicians’ Competition. Currently in the middle of his school exams at Manchester’s Chetham’s School of Music, Smart gave a highly-assured reading of Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor that certainly belied his age as well as proving him a worthy successor to an already impressive list of concerto soloists.

The outer movements were despatched with great panache and authority, while the central Adagio was given with genuine emotion, aided considerably by the highly-sympathetic direction from the violin, by Hans-Peter Hofmann. A generous encore in the shape of Rodrigo’s charming Cançoneta for Violin and Orchestra, suggested to Smart by EUCO Director General, Ambrose Miller, not only added the icing to the cake, but caused a flurry of interest during the interval among those in the audience, keen to discover the work’s identity.

First-rate accounts of Barber’s Adagio and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings concluded one of the finest displays of concerted string-playing heard in the city for a very long time.

Philip R Buttall