Edinburgh Festival (10): The Chamber of Orchestra of Europe in Edinburgh

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2013 (10). Strauss, Haydn, BeethovenChamber of Orchestra of Europe, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Usher Hall, 16.08.2013 (SRT)

Strauss: Metamorphosen

Haydn: Sinfonia Concertante in B flat

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3, “Eroica”

The Chamber Orchestra of Europe has taken up residence in Edinburgh for the weekend with a pair of concerts, both of which feature something by Strauss, a Classical sinfonia concertante and a Beethoven symphony. A balanced menu, and it was Haydn’s Sinfonia concertante that showed the orchestra at their best. What makes a chamber orchestra so distinctive from a symphony orchestra isn’t just the size: concomitant with that is the fact that the players tend to be better at listening to and responding to one another. For a classically proportioned work like this one that’s essential and, as I’ve remarked before in relation to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, there’s a particularly special chemistry when concerto soloists are drawn from the ranks of the orchestra. There was a lovely sense of team-work in this piece, with the quartet of soloists often emerging from the orchestral tutti, despite the fact that they were standing apart at the front. Leader Lorenza Borrani was dazzling on the violin, while Kai Frömbgen’s pungent oboe and Matthew Wilkie’s fruity bassoon provided delectable contrast. Only William Conway’s cello seemed to struggle a little with the higher, faster passages in the finale.

It was through Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s recordings that this orchestra played such an important role in transforming the way we hear Beethoven’s symphonies, and I was really looking forward to hearing their way with the Eroica. They mostly play on modern instruments – tonight they had natural trumpets and timps – but inflect their playing with period style. The orchestral sound was, indeed, superlative, with characterful strings that could change the colour of their sound radically from the life-enhancing vigour of the opening movement to the emaciated shadows of the funeral march, and a marvellously bright set of winds and brass that added tremendous flecks of colour at every opportunity. However, I found the direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin by turns distracting and troubling. Nézet-Séguin has developed a reputation as a conductor on the up, and he has impressed me in the past, but tonight on the podium he conducted with the appearance and the subtlety of a bantam-weight boxer. He seemed determined to bring out something new in the score but he set about it with barely any musical sensitivity and in a manner which seemed to draw more attention to himself than to Beethoven. In the first movement he accentuated some of the chords from the middle voices so that they sounded like uncomfortable stabs while, perversely, smoothing over the bigger landmarks, such as the full-orchestral chords that ended the exposition. His attitude to the tempi was infuriatingly inconsistent, too: he would often slow up for a climax or accelerate out of one, and the most bizarre moment of the evening came when he put his foot on the accelerator for one of the variations of the finale but then slowed up again as soon as that variation was over. Effects like this ruined the line and broke up the all-important sense of flow. The climaxes were, admittedly, electrifying, but they stuck out like sore thumbs. Nézet-Séguin is a showman, undoubtedly, but he had given too little thought to this work and he ended up seeming superficial.

Thankfully there was no such problem for a deeply moving performance of Metamorphosen. Here the size of your orchestra doesn’t matter – it’s 23 or bust – but this orchestra’s heritage of cooperation made them ideally suited for bringing out each of Strauss’s voices individually in a line of argument that seemed to move inexorably, and very poignantly, to the Eroica quotation in the final pages.

Simon Thompson