Camerata Tchaikovsky Present an Eclectic and Exhilarating Christmas Stocking

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Cuéllar, Britten, Tchaikovsky: William Gough (bassoon), Karin Dahlberg (soprano), Camerata Tchaikovsky/Yuri Zhislin (director), Kings Place, London, 17.12.2017. (CS)

Yuri Zhislin (centre) and the Camerata Tchaikovsky
Yuri Zhislin (centre) and the Camerata Tchaikovsky

Mozart – Divertimento No.1 in D, K.136
Arturo Cuéllar – Concerto for bassoon and strings
BrittenLes Illuminations for soprano and strings, Op.18
TchaikovskySouvenir de Florence, Op.70

When I last heard violinist/director Yuri Zhislin and ‘his band’ at Kings Place they called themselves the Russian Virtuosi of Europe: now they are the Camerata Tchaikovsky – but, their repertoire remains as eclectic as ever, their playing as vivid and engaging, and Zhislin’s direction as ‘unassuming and undemonstrative but dependably exact and clear’.

Mozart’s Divertimento No.1 in D opened the concert and immediately in the Allegro the silken tone of the fiddle-playing struck the ear.  Fluidity and agility were the touchstones: phrases were passed fluently between the first and second violins; repeating cello quavers injected vigour from below; harmonic nuances were highlighted but not overly nuanced.  The music felt ‘lived in’ rather than genteelly crafted; and Zhislin’s apparent, though undoubtedly deceptive, insouciance created relaxed ambience: those tricky running passages for the second violins slipped by with delicious ease.  The Andante didn’t linger – this was a fairly brisk stroll: the cellos’ firm phrasing resulted in onward movement while the long bows employed in the middle parts created a lyrical fluency, even though Zhislin sought to emphasis the dynamic contrasts.  Fleet, flying up-bows kicked off the Presto and the uniformity of the players’ pianissimo, mid-bow spiccatos was impressive – all was light and air.

In 2015, the Russian Virtuosi gave us the world premiere of Arturo Cuéllar’s Fantasy on Russian Themes for trumpet and strings; this time round the Camerata Tchaikovsky and bassoonist William Gough offered Cuéllar’s Concerto for bassoon and strings.  And, while, rightly, no conductor had been deemed necessary in the Mozart Divertimento, the jazzy syncopations and rhythmic dances of the concerto – think Bernstein meets Piazzolla – were co-ordinated by the composer’s baton.  Gough has a sweet light tone but can find both richness and clarity in the lower register.  He ventured with facility and nonchalance through the runs and leaps thrown at him, and in the lyrical slow movement displayed an impressive breath control which underpinned the firmly shaped extended phrases.  But, there was little sense of engagement between soloist and strings, and there was some untidiness and wayward intonation in the latter, which made me wonder how much rehearsal time had been available for, or devoted to, this ten-minute concerto.  The second movement Cantabile was soupily lyrical over a long-held bass pedal, but the concluding Presto was rather untidy.

If Cuéllar’s concerto didn’t make much of a mark, then the vibrancy and power, as well as the emotional commitment, of Swedish soprano Karin Dahlberg ensured that Britten’s Les Illuminations was considerably more compelling.  Dahlberg, however, hadn’t quite got the measure of the Kings Place acoustic: she almost invariably projected too forcefully and there was some unpleasant reverberation in the middle range.

But, there was also, in terms of vocal expressiveness and poetic communicativeness, much to admire … though what a pity we had not been provided with a translation of Rimbaud’s poetry: a simple A4 text sheet would have sufficed to enable the audience – whom I suspect could no more unravel the French poetry than could I, however much care Dahlberg took to dramatize the text – to engage much more rewardingly.

In the opening ‘Fanfare’, tight tremolandos and leaping violas and then violins created an uncannily trumpet-like sound which prepared for the vibrancy of ‘Villes’, in which Dahlberg’s lustrous soprano was set off against the airy cello glissandi and pristine violin solo.   Dahlberg’s creamy, bright tone, and rich, rounded top notes in ‘Phrase’ led me to imagine her as Britten’s Tytania, while in the second part of this third part, ‘Antique’, the cellos’ faery, brushed pizzicatos evoked the dream world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the soaring solos of Zhislin and lead cellist Alexei Sarkissov presenting the enchanted nocturnal yearnings.  The majesty of ‘Royauté’ was flamboyantly ironic, while in ‘Marine’ the cellos’ pizzicatos were an effective propelling medium, working sometimes with and sometimes against the voice.

In ‘Being Beauteous’ we could enjoy the lyrical depth of Dahlberg’s soprano: the tuning was absolutely secure, and the phrasing elegant but alert.  Double bass player Tim Gibbs impressed throughout, but particularly in ‘Parade’, where Dahlberg worked hard to communicate Rimbaud’s garish imagery, and it was the cellos and double bass who underlined the poignancy at the end of ‘Départ’.

This is complex music and what was most impressive here was the way the individual players and sections really took ownership of their contributions to the whole.  Zhislin’s direction – especially, for example, in the instrumental ‘Interlude’ – made a considerable impact but always phlegmatic in manner.

The real treat came after the interval, though, when the Camerata Tchaikovsky performed their namesake’s Souvenir de Florence with unfettered joy and lyricism.  Zhislin, with the barest of gestures, somehow guided his players as they graded the dynamics, and shaped the textures from the plushest glistening to the sparest transparency; the chamber music conversations that ran through the performance were enlivening and compelling.  And, to complement the beautiful solo playing from Zhislin, Sarkissov, and lead viola, Krzysztof Chorzelski, there was real concordance of ensemble sound, particularly in the homophonic passages of the opening Allegro con spirto for example.

The humble but committed and long-lived string orchestra with which I play, will perform Souvenir de Florence next April, and listening to the Adagio cantabile e con moto I kept reflecting on how much I am going to enjoy playing this work – even if we don’t come near the heights achieved here!  Sarkissov employed a very wide vibrato for his solo lines, but it worked, enhancing the compelling forward motion that Zhislin established.  It’s a long movement and the central shimmering section buzzed with thrilling tension, before a glorious homophonic song brought the movement to a conclusion, with independent flourishes rippling through the ensemble texture.  After which, we danced all the way home – through the folky poise of the Allegretto moderato and on to the spice and fiery surges of the concluding Allegro vivace – though the cellos’ burning vigour was tempered by the wonderful relaxation of the second theme.  Zhislin launched his musical companions into the fugal development with a quasi-impatience which welled warmly to the close.

The disappointingly sparse audience – festive duties and visits had inevitably diverted some loyal LCMS regulars elsewhere on this evening – were unanimously and warmly appreciative, and we were treated to an encore of Zhislin’s own piquantly harmonised arrangement of Silent Nacht.

Claire Seymour

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