The English Chamber Orchestra’s Stylish Sunday Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Verdi, Mozart, Pärt and Haydn: Ana de la Vega (flute), English Chamber Orchestra/Gianluca Marciano (conductor), King’s Place London, 31.5.2015 (CS)

Verdi: String Quartet in E minor, arranged for string orchestra
Mozart: Flute Concerto in D major K.314
Andante in C for flute and orchestra K.315
Pärt: Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten for strings and bell
Haydn: Symphony No.59 in A major (‘Fire’)


Every Sunday between October and May, the London Chamber Music Society presents a concert at King’s Place, but with the LCSMS’s 2014-15 series having come to an end a couple of weeks ago, this Sunday the Hall played host to the English Chamber Orchestra in a concert generously supported by Frédéric de Mevius.  For many years, Mevius’ passion for music and the arts has seen him sponsoring cultural events, festivals and venues across Europe: The Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, the Festival de Crete Senesi in Italy, and most recently the London International Players, of which flautist Ana de la Vega, the soloist on this occasion, is the Artistic Director.

The programme was eclectic and interesting.  Verdi’s string quartet, written in 1873, is the composer’s only extant chamber work.  Verdi was himself rather dismissive of the quartet, commenting in a letter to the Parma Chamber Music Society in February 1878: ‘it is true that in Naples I wrote a quartet, which was performed privately in my house.  It is also true that I have had requests … to perform this quartet. I refused, because I did not want any importance attached to this piece, and because I believed then, and believe now (though perhaps I’m wrong), that in Italy the Quartet is a plant unsuited to our climate.’

The English Chamber Orchestra made a much more vigorous case for its merits, finding much ‘operatic’ drama and tension, and at times surprising fury, in the energetic contrapuntal passages of the opening movement, which contrasted with silky fluidity in the quieter episodes.  Indeed, there are several references to specific operas: the first movement theme comes from Act III of Aida, while the second movement makes use of material from Don Carlos.  Stephanie Gonley led the players with energy and obvious enjoyment; it would perhaps have been interesting to have heard the work as ‘real chamber music’, without a conductor, but that’s not to suggest that Gianluca Marciano was anything other than a graceful guiding presence, pacing the entire work effectively and giving individual shape to the contrasting movements.   (The programme notes did not inform us by whom the arrangement had been made; at least two versions exist, by Arturo Toscanini and Yuli Turovsky.)

The Andantino, a stylish triple-time dance, demonstrated the orchestra’s uniformity of bow articulation and secure intonation, while the following Prestissimo gave lead cellist Tim Lowe the opportunity to shine in a noble, resonant solo – much like a star tenor’s gallant outpouring – that showcased the cellist’s relaxed legato phrasing and warm, round tone.  The final fugal movement was tightly controlled, with the inner voices compact and precise in introducing the theme.  Marciano achieved a nice a balance between the driving counterpoint and the more rhetorical homophonic passages, and expertly managed the accelerando to the close.

​The vigour and animation of Verdi gave way to a more restrained elegance when Ana de la Vega joined the ECO for the first of two pieces by Mozart.  In 1778 the Dutch flautist Ferdinand De Jean commissioned four flute quartets and three flute concertos, and this Concerto in D is an adaptation of a concerto for oboe which Mozart had written for Giuseppe Ferlendis.   De la Vega’s lovely clean sound, even phrasing and the airy lightness with which she ran through the registers made the melodies seem tailor-made for the flute.  Marciano encouraged rhythmic animation from the string players and in the first movement in particular there was some engaging dialogue between the solo flute and string sections, especially the celli.  In the cadenza, argpeggiac fancies gave way to teasing recitative-like fragments and trills, while the fast runs were tongued with meticulous exactitude.  The flute’s floating cantilena line duetted sweetly with the violins in the ensuing Adagio before the concluding Rondo took off with a spring its step, enhanced by bright, pithy interjections from the horns.

De la Vega returned after the interval for Mozart’s Andante in C K.315 and here her playing demonstrated an innate stylishness and grace, and a beautifully pure tone, which the string accompaniment complemented with full warm pizzicato and sustained lyricism.  However, I did wonder whether it would have been better to have reversed the order of the two Mozart works, and to have placed both before the interval.  For, there was a rather disjunctive shift to entirely different worlds with the work which followed – Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten – and I felt that it was hard for the ECO to establish fully the mood of spiritual stillness which is initiated by the simple modal melody which follows the first soft striking of the bell.  Marciano worked hard to coax the players from these opening whispers to the resounding depth achieved when the shifting, entwining voices cohered with the descent of the double basses to a sonorous tonic.  There was intensity and focus in the concluding bars, with the final striking of the bell, but the performance did not quite convey a sense of revelation or liberation.

Haydn’s ‘Fire’ Symphony was the final item in the programme.  Although the work was not so-named by its composer, the feisty string passagework of the opening Presto, matched by punchy oboe and horn playing, made its moniker an apt one.  The following Andante had stateliness, though it was taken at a fairly swift tempo; Marciano allowed us to hear the gentle interplay of the inner voices too.  The precision which marked the whole performance was much in evidence in the Menuet e Trio, and the octave unisons and dynamic contrasts were crisply executed.  Horns and oboes again brought colour to the breakneck Allegro assai, while the string runs flashed by in glittering style.  After the flexible conversations of the central episode, the jubilant cries of the hunting horns urged the players to a heroic close.

Claire Seymour

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