An Eclectic But Appealing Programme from the Zurich Chamber Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Hummel, Shostakovich: Alison Balsom (trumpet), Gabriela Montero (piano), Zurich Chamber Orchestra, Willi Zimmermann (concertmaster), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 4.12.2016 (SRT)

Mozart – Symphony No.33 in B flat; Piano Concerto No. 14 in E flat
Hummel – Trumpet Concerto
Shostakovich – Concerto No.1 for piano, trumpet and string orchestra

On paper this might look like a slightly random programme, but in actuality it worked very well, and there was a logic to it, too. It wasn’t just that it gave both Alison Balsom and Gabriela Monetero the opportunity to do their thing, both separately and together, but it also featured works all of which were written by composers in their twenties. When you realise that, it not only gives the concert coherence but an added “wow” factor that four such different pieces could come from composers at such an early stage of development.

Balsom and Montero were both marvellous in their own ways. Balsom’s trumpet line gleams with confidence, and her playing was unerringly stylish throughout Hummel’s concerto, with its vivacious finale and the surprising long line of its canzone-like slow movement. Likewise, Gabriela Montero brought playing of lucidity and crystalline calm to Mozart’s E-flat piano concerto, playing that was totally sensitive to the period and thoroughly bracing, like a refreshing wash-down for the ears.

Every bit as fine, however, and more welcome for being less expected, was the really rather splendid playing of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, who I’ve never come across before but will certainly seek out in future.  They’re a small group (the string arrangement is 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, to be specific) but they produce a sound of remarkable richness for that, giving the best of both worlds: period sensitivity but none of the sometimes unwelcome baggage or fussiness that comes with that. They play with just a little vibrato in their Mozart, meaning that the B-flat symphony sounded lithe, agile and, importantly, beautifully balanced. Directed organically from the concertmaster’s chair, their playing was full of life in everything, giving special ebullience to Hummel’s opening movement. A special gain came in the slow movement of the Mozart concerto, where the orchestra and piano seemed to flow in and out of one another’s lines in a beautifully persuasive manner. In fact, I’d never really noticed before just how beautiful this movement is.

They were also the perfect size for the Shostakovich concerto which, for most of it, was basically the Gabriela Montero show, Balsom sitting demurely and waiting for her brief moments in the sun. They came together best for the custard-pie moments of the finale but, again, it’s the beauty of the slow movement that will stick with me the longest, unfolding with unhurried warmth and meditative calm.

For the encore, Montero did her party-piece of improvising on a tune shouted out by the audience, in this case ‘O my Luve’s like a red, red rose’.  I’ve never seen her do this before, and really it has to be seen to be believed. It started off like a Chopin waltz, then morphed into an Argentine tango half-way through. Remarkable.

Simon Thompson

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