Entertaining Performances by the Firebird Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  J.S. Bach, Haydn, Rossini and Mozart: Raphael Wallfisch (cello), Firebird Orchestra, Jonathan Bloxham (conductor), King’s Place London, 8.2.2015 (CS)

J.S. Bach: Air and Gavotte from Orchestral Suite No.3 in D BMV 1068
Haydn: Cello Concerto No.1 in C
Rossini: Une Larme (‘A Tear’) Theme & Variations for cello and strings
Mozart: Symphony in C K.551 (Jupiter)

With so many talented musicians graduating each year from the UK’s music colleges, conservatoires and universities, the young player’s induction into professional musical life must require a considerable amount of determination, stamina, self-belief, ingenuity and imagination.  In London, one can hear exciting performances given by a wealth of newly-founded ensembles, as music graduates – singers and instrumentalists alike – seek to shape their own futures.

Established in March 2012 by Artistic Director Marc Corbett-Weaver, the London Firebird Orchestra is a symphony orchestra comprising some of the most gifted musicians who have graduated from London music colleges during the last ten years.  Performing at King’s Place, they were joined on this occasion by cellist Raphael Wallfisch, and under the lively baton of conductor Jonathan Bloxham they brought freshness and energy to some familiar ‘classics’.

J.S. Bach’s ‘Air on a G String’ needs no introduction and this ‘signature tune’ of the Baroque, heard here with the Gavotte from Bach’s third Orchestral Suite in D, made a comforting opening to the evening’s fare.  Bloxham coaxed a gentle warmth from the first violins, led by guest leader Sarah Sew, although some exaggerated dynamic contrasts, particularly in the repeated sections, slightly disrupted the sense of continuous melodic motion.  The cello’s walking bass had a supple flow, though, and the bass line was nicely shaped at the cadence points.  Vibrato was applied judiciously and the telling dissonances and suspensions deriving from the movement of the inner voices were subtly enhanced.  The trumpets and oboes added a reedy pungency to the following Gavotte.  Bloxham balanced the vigour and elegance of the courtly dance, with the trumpets’ bright punctuations offering vigorous salutations and farewells at the start and end of the buoyant phrases.

Presumed lost until 1961, when musicologist Oldřich Pulkert discovered a copy of the score at the Prague National Museum, Haydn’s tuneful Cello Concerto in C is now a staple of the cello repertoire.  In Raphael Wallfisch’s hands it had a joyful charm and ease.  The climbing dotted rhythms and syncopations at the start of the Moderato immediately established a blithe cheeriness, and the soloist’s multiple-string chords and rapid changes of register were negotiated effortlessly.  Haydn frequently exploits the cello’s upper register and here Wallfisch’s tone was full and sweet.  The rapid passagework was nimble but also had tuneful presence.

Phrasing was eloquent, from soloist and orchestra alike, in the Adagio, Wallfisch’s long-held entry notes naturally assuming the melodic mantle and the solo line flowering with natural grace.  He made light work of the virtuosities of the Allegro molto finale, while the strings’ articulation of the main theme provided bite and vigour.  Throughout, Wallfisch sought to converse directly with the accompanying players, and they did indeed form a sympathetic support – although there was a sense at times that the cellist wanted to generate more momentum than Bloxham’s relaxed direction allowed.  Batonless, the conductor employed expressive but economical gestures to cajole his players persuasively but he was not always immediately responsive to Wallfisch’s spontaneity.

Ever a champion of the less well-known, Wallfisch partnered Haydn’s ebullient concerto with Rossini’s more lachrymose Une larme, in an arrangement by the Italian composer and cellist Giovanni Sollima for cello and strings.  Although known principally for his operas, Rossini composed a considerable amount of vocal and instrumental music, and Une Larme (a theme and variations, originally for cello and piano) was one of series of works which he mischievously titled Péchés de Vieillesse (Sins of My Old Age).  The main theme was rich and plangent in Wallfisch’s hands, and his full vibrato and strong tone firmly established a mood of indulgent melancholy in the opening statement; but thereafter the mood brightened, culminating in the showy brilliance of the final variation.  The variations increasingly assume an operatic theatricality and Bloxham shaped the episodes well, alert to the inherent drama of the music.  Wallfisch was again untroubled by the technical demands made of the soloist – perhaps it was all a little too effortless? – but he winningly balanced pathos and bravura.

Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony was the post-interval item, and it was here that the Firebird Orchestra produced their best playing – accurate, stylish and engaging.  In the Allegro vivace the orchestral sound was full and rounded, with horns and woodwind offering some glowing counterpoint to the statements of the theme.  The first violins’ melody at the start of the Andante cantabile is muted, but I’d still have liked a little more definition and presence; Mozart undoubtedly deliberately disrupts the melodic line, but there was a tentative quality which a warmer fullness would have overcome.  Things soon enriched though and the movement’s yearning harmonies evolved persuasively.  In the Menuetto: Allegretto the violins’ tone was more suave, horns and trumpets quietly but pointedly punctuating the chromatic line.

The complexities of the Molto Allegro – with its accumulation of colours and increasingly intricate fugal developments of the movement’s multifarious motifs – were impressively presented, and the closing passages acquired a terrific energy and panache.  Conducting from memory, Bloxham was remarkably attentive to the many and rapid transitions from elegance to vivacity, and proved a master juggler in the Finale, keeping all the contrapuntal balls in the air.  He is a thoughtful and expressive conductor, but in some of the more complex musical episodes I felt that the ensemble might have benefited from a more precise and less emotive direction.  This was a minor quibble though: the Firebird Orchestra captivatingly communicated the grandeur and power suggested by the Roman God whose name the symphony bears.

Claire Seymour