Enterprising Programming and Excellent Performances from the Melos Sinfonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Panufnik, and Myaskovsky: Bartholomew LaFollette (cello), Melos Sinfonia, Oliver Zeffman (conductor). LSO St Luke’s, London, 31.1.2014 (MB)

Tchaikovsky – Fantasy Overture: Romeo and Juliet, TH 42
Panufnik – Cello Concerto
Myaskovsky – Symphony no.27, op.85 (London premiere)

I was delighted to have this opportunity to hear the Melos Sinfonia under their young principal conductor, Oliver Zeffman, who is still an undergraduate at Durham. The orchestra’s players are current students and recent graduates of major conservatories and universities, as well as orchestras such as the European Union Youth Orchestra, the Gustav Mahler Youth orchestra, the Britten-Pears Orchestra, and the Southbank Sinfonia. Moreover, the stated commitment to ‘playing rarely-performed works and new compositions’ is laudable – and was certainly displayed on this particular occasion.

The only repertory piece was the opening Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet Overture. Though there were occasions when the strings might have benefited from lusher tone – and indeed from greater numbers – and there were a few frayed edges, they were less frequent than one might have expected. Moreover, keen woodwind playing proved ample compensation. Zeffman guided the score not only ably but perceptively. There was a true sense of narrative characterisation and development, placing the overture firmly within a post-Lisztian context. It is a brave work with which to open, but courage was amply justified. I have heard considerably inferior performances from ‘big name’ conductors and orchestras.

Having proved themselves in such treacherous territory, it was then perhaps easier to gain an audience’s trust for a less familiar work, Andrezj Panfnik’s 1991 Cello Concerto, written for Rostropovich and the LSO during the composer’s final illness, his final work. Joined by the excellent cellist, Bartholomew LaFollette, the musicians gave what seemed to me an authoritative account, clearly well-rehearsed and powerfully executed. Throughout, rhythms were taut, without a sense of being excessively driven. LaFollette proved adept at spinning long-breathed melodies in the Adagio first movement. Zeffman accompanied – much of this first movement does seem to be largely a matter of ‘accompaniment – attentively, and had the orchestra dance winningly in the ensuing Vivace. That second of two movements seems almost to become a double concerto, percussionist Ed Scull proving just as fine a soloist in all but name. LaFollette’s rendition of the lengthy cadenza seemed as convincing as the material would permit; it is difficult not to think it too long, but that is not his fault. Despite an interesting introductory conversation between Donald Macleod and Roxanna Panufnik, I cannot say that I was won over to the composer’s cause. For all the talk of restricting socialist realism prior to emigration, that is just what the music sounded like. Indeed, it was difficult to reconcile its style and language with the date of composition. The performances, though, were impressive indeed.

A less welcome introduction was offered to Nikolai Myaskovsky’s Twenty-seventh (!) Symphony. Bumbling and frankly amateurish, the speaker concerned, however genuine his enthusiasm, would have been better advised to let the music speak for itself. (Still, that is hardly unusual in the world of such introductions.) Once again, however, Zeffman and the Melos Sinfonia gave committed performances, woodwind and brass perhaps especially impressive, but that is probably as much a matter of the opportunities granted them to shine as anything else. Again, this is no masterpiece, but one can hardly complain about having been given an opportunity to hear it, for this was its first London performance. (Apparently, there had been one prior British performance, at Dartington.) The interest in such works seems more autobiographical, partly a result of outdated Cold War attitudes, rather than æsthetic, but we need to hear them occasionally to appreciate that, and it is certainly no weaker than many a Shostakovich symphony. Perhaps surprisingly – or perhaps not – Bruckner came to mind in the slow movement, not only harmonically but even structurally. The apparent influence of, or at least kinship with, Glazunov was less welcome. (I was put in mind of Stravinsky’s recollection of the 1907 premiere of his early Symphony in E-flat major: ‘The only bad omen was Glazunov, who came to me afterward, saying, “Very nice, very nice.”’ Whatever the shortcomings of the work, though, this was a highly enterprising and successful performance. These are clearly an orchestra and conductor who merit our attention.

Mark Berry