Jonathan Bloxham’s Swift Tempi Bring Excitement but Sacrifice Expression

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Mendelssohn and Haydn: Benjamin Baker (violin), Lisa Rijmer (soprano), (conductor), Kings Place, London, 8.5.2016. (CS)

Mozart: Overture to The Marriage of Figaro

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor Op.64

Mozart: ‘Giunse al fin il momento … Deh, vieni, non tardar’ and ‘Porgi, amor’ (The Marriage of Figaro)

Haydn: Symphony No.103 in E flat Hob 1:103 (Drumroll)

Jonathan Bloxham is a man in a hurry! The conductor whipped the London Firebird Orchestra – which is comprised of talented musicians who are at the start of their professional careers – through this programme of well-known works from the Classical era at a breakneck pace, and it’s to the young players’ credit that they not only kept up, but excelled.

The running motif for strings and bassoon with which the overture to The Marriage of Figaro commences was less a hushed buzzing than a vigorous burst, and it set up a frenetic energy which did not lessen until the final bar-line.  Even the introduction of the contrasting lyrical subject saw no hint of ‘relaxation’ of the breathless tempo.  There was certainly much ‘drama’: horns and trumpets added glowing richness which seemed to propel things onwards; the flutes played with bright tone, adding a flash of brilliance; the strings, led with cool equanimity by Julian Azkoul, were fleet of finger in the racing scalic passagework.  Dynamic contrasts kept everyone on their toes and accents were marked by sharp attack.

But the ‘cost’ of such relentless haste was the sacrifice of warmth of tone and elegance of phrasing. Mozart’s motifs and themes are quite short-breathed, and if they don’t have space to take on definition and character, they can slip by without making their mark.  Moreover, the balance between the scampering of the fairly small string section and the enthusiastic contributions of trumpets and drums favoured the latter, and Bloxham might have encouraged more restraint.  That said, this was impressively deft playing and Bloxham conducted with stylishness and confidence.

I often feel that violinists embark upon Mendelssohn’s soaring E-string theme, at the start of the composer’s perennially loved concerto, with undue alacrity and then have to slow down disproportionately for the second subject which settles naturally into a more gentle lilt. On this occasion, Benjamin Baker’s opening phrases revived these sentiments, but there was no let up with the arrival of the flutes’ and clarinets’ sweet, tranquil melody and the movement was insistently intense.

Baker, who was a fellow student with Bloxham (a cellist) at the Yehudi Menuhin School, is a fine violinist. His tone is smooth and clear, and his musicianship refined.  He cut sleek arcs throughout the first movement, but a slightly slower tempo would have allowed him to imbue the phrases with deeper expressive weight – something that I was particularly conscious of during the cadenza which did not convey the variety and range of feeling that Mendelssohn evokes.  Similarly, in the Andante, an urgent momentum meant that the central double-stopped minor-key episode did not generate the dramatic tension that might have been achieved, as there was insufficient contrast of mood with the spirit of the movement’s lovely song-theme.  This melody was phrased with craftsmanship by Baker but once again I’d have liked more time and space to enjoy the fullness of his tone.  Needless to say, the final Allegro took Mendelssohn at his word, ‘molto vivace’, but while Baker breezed blithely through the dancing melody and skipping runs, Bloxham wasn’t always able to maintain spot-on ensemble, especially in the woodwind dialogues with the soloist.  The cellos sang lyrically though, supporting Baker’s virtuosic roulades, and the violinist raced ecstatically into the stratosphere in the final bars.

The twists, turns and disguises of the plot of The Marriage of Figaro produce bewilderment enough, but Nigerian soprano Lisa Rijmer added to the potential for confusion by performing two arias from the opera in ‘reverse’ order.  In the event, Susanna’s teasing final-act nocturne ‘Deh vieni, non tardar’ – sung in the garden to tease the jealous Figaro who, hiding under a bush overhears his betrothed’s serenade and imagines it is intended for the Count’s ears and heart – made an apt prelude to the Countess’s sincere lament on her husband’s infidelity, ‘Porgi, amor’.

Rijmer was a finalist in the 2006 Handel Singing Competition and a semi-finalist in the 2009 Wigmore Hall International Singing Competition. She has a warm platform presence and sings with full, lustrous tone and expansive lyricism.  These two arias were imbued with tender feeling and provided a welcome relaxation and respite from the flurry of the rest of the programme.  I’d have liked greater variety of colour, though, to distinguish between the two very different young women whose sentiments she sang.  ‘Deh vieni’ was notable for some fine woodwind playing above the strings’ gentle pizzicatos.

Haydn marks the drumroll which initiates his eponymous symphony, ‘Solo’ and ‘Intrada’, but the score offers no dynamic marking and as the original timpani part is not extant, there’s scope for individual interpretation: should the player begin quietly, grow and then recede mysteriously; or should the symphony begin with a sustained fortimisso roll?

Bloxham plumped for the latter and an explosive blast shattered the expectant silence. The conductor effectively controlled the rhythmic ambiguities of both the slow introduction and the lively, often syncopated, Allegro con spirito, and made the subsequent and surprising reappearance of the initial meandering material convincing.  The remaining three movements conveyed Haydn’s spirit of idiosyncratic invention and adventurousness, as well as the music’s quirky humour.  With drama and fire, the daring Finale brought this season of the London Chamber Music Society’s Sunday concerts at Kings Place to a fittingly bravura close.

Claire Seymour


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