United Kingdom Herrmann, Eisler, Stravinsky, Dvořák and Korngold: Michael Petrov (cello), City of London Sinfonia/Michael Collins (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 2.5.2015 (AS)
Herrmann: North by Northwest – Overture
Eisler: Kleine Sinfonie
Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements
Dvořák: Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104
Korngold: The Adventures of Robin Hood – Suite
Put on a concert with unusual and enterprising repertoire, and the result is poor attendance. This seems to have been generally the case for as long as symphony concerts as we know them have existed, and it was certainly so on this occasion. A note in the programme stated that even if the Cadogan Hall had been fully booked the proceeds would only cover half the costs of putting on the concert. So the financial losses – most unfortunately – will have been heavy in this instance. Many of us complain about the prevalence of concerts containing “safe” repertoire, but unless substantial sponsorship is involved caution is understandable. There’s nothing new in this situation, but the facts of it need to be repeated for concertgoers from time to time. The theme of this concert was “Emigré: From Hollywood to New York”. In other words all the music was by composers who had left their native countries either under duress or by choice to live in the USA.
An exception surely was Bernard Herrmann, who though the son of Russian immigrants, was born in New York. The Overture from his score for the film North by Northwest comprises music that accompanies the opening credits, and is a busy, rather menacing mood picture, portrayed with much gusto by Michael Collins and his moderate-sized ensemble, whose total string section numbered just under 30. Hanns Eisler’s Kleine Sinfonie, cast in four brief movements, was written in 1932, the year before he fled to America from the Nazis. It is a bit of a mixture: solemn neo-Classicism; jazzy counterpoint with a particularly blowsy saxophone in the last, jaunty movement; a brass passage reminiscent of Weill’s Kleine Dreigroschenmusik; and a distinct echo of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms elsewhere. It’s not a great masterpiece, but it is an interesting, well-constructed work. The manner of Collins’s conducting here – precise, clear-cut and rhythmically vital – promised good things for the work that followed, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, which certainly is an acknowledged masterpiece. And so it proved to be. Having recently experienced Vasily Petrenko’s glib and rushed performance of this work, perfectly but blandly played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, it was a great relief to hear Collins’s trenchant, urgently expressive performance. The City of London Sinfonia, though an estimable ensemble, is not quite on the level of the LPO, but paradoxically this meant that the playing showed more struggle and tension, to good advantage, and Collins’s tempi were certainly much better judged. For this listener at least it was quite an overwhelming experience.
Another potent performance was heard after the interval. The young Bulgarian cellist Michael Petrov gave an impressive performance of Walton’s Cello Concerto with Edward Gardner conducting the Barbican Young Orchestra a while back, and now he was heard in the Dvořák concerto. At once he had the advantage of a warmly expressive orchestral introduction from the orchestra, and indeed throughout the work Collins provided an acutely sympathetic accompaniment for his soloist. Petrov’s playing was technically perfect, and he produced a remarkable range of beautiful tone colours from his eighteenth-century Testore instrument. That in itself was remarkable, but so was his very free, Romantic approach to the work, quite relaxed in a way, and full of the most heart-warming turns of phrase. The inner movement was taken a little slowly, with many expressive changes of pulse, but Petrov’s passionate playing ensured that the emotional temperature was maintained at a high level.
After such an experience the suite from Korngold’s score for the film The Adventures of Robin Hood proved to be something of an anti-climatic last item, but the music was pleasantly tuneful, mostly cheerful and lusciously scored. The programme note gave no indications of the suite’s contents, but in due there arrived a vigorous movement that had an air of finality about it (one could imagine the words “THE END” coming up on the screen), and at its conclusion the audience correctly chose this moment to offer some thoroughly deserved and enthusiastic applause.