Southbank Sinfonia comes to the South West

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Christopher Churcher, Beethoven: Robert Taub (piano), Southbank Sinfonia / Mark Forkgen (conductor). Levinsky Hall, University of Plymouth, 4.2.2023. (PRB)

Southbank Sinfonia with Robert Taub (piano) (c) Philip R Buttall

Christopher Churcher – Breakwater (2022)
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.4 in G major, Op. 58
Beethoven – Symphony No.7 in A major, Op. 92

This was the third concert in the Musica Viva series held at the city’s newest concert venue, Levinsky Hall on the University of Plymouth campus. The first two events had featured a solo piano recital and a piano-and-violin duo. There was, therefore, an extra frisson of excitement for the present concert: how will the venue cope with a fully-fledged chamber orchestra, and what about the Steinway Grand that had recently been moved from its original home in the nearby Sherwell Centre?

Either all this had made a significant difference, or word had simply spread about the top-quality performances in those two recitals, but the event was sold out a few days in advance. That was a really encouraging tribute to Bob Taub and his team at the Arts Institute, and to the unstinting support of the University and its Vice-Chancellor Professor Judith Petts.

The London-based Southbank Sinfonia, founded in 2002, welcomes each year thirty-three of the most promising graduate orchestral players from around the world. They complete the Southbank Fellowship before going on to join some of the leading international orchestras and ensembles.

The Sinfonia and its conductor Mark Forkgen opened the programme with the premiere performance of Breakwater, winner of the inaugural Musica Viva Composition Competition. Its nineteen-year-old composer, Christopher Churcher, wrote the work – which he describes as ‘a short overture for Symphony Orchestra’ – at the end of 2022, and his first term as a music undergraduate at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford. The title refers to Plymouth’s iconic Breakwater, a 1560-metre (1710-yard) offshore stone barrier begun in 1812, which protects Plymouth Sound.

Breakwater drew an inspired performance from the young instrumentalists. It was notable for its impressive range of dynamics, from the merest whisper at the start to bold tutti moments from the full ensemble, distinguished by stirring utterances by the brass. With the work’s rather abrupt denouement, it was fortuitous that the players opted to communicate this to the audience with a little stamping of the feet.

The Sinfonia was now joined by Arts Institute Director of Music, Robert Taub, in a performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. Taub had already briefly outlined the work’s structure in the pre-concert talk – more of which later – but, in the guarded manner of the best soap-spoiler, left his audience wondering just how the composer chose to open the fourth of his five piano concertos.

The first three concertos begin according to the well-established Classical formula of Mozart and his contemporaries. During a short orchestral exposition, the soloist basically sits and waits their turn, usually before entering with a significantly more dramatic version of the opening theme, exactly, in fact, as does the Third Concerto. But in the Fourth, Beethoven has the piano enter entirely on its own, with what amounts to a mere quasi-improvisatory five-bar passage of simple chords in the home key, coming to rest on the dominant chord.

And yet, to describe the piano’s opening gambit as a simple chordal passage is to do Beethoven’s unique conception a real injustice. Agreed, these five bars are not especially challenging to play, but to bring them off in performance demands intellectual and sympathetic treatment that can take a lifetime’s experience to acquire.

When Taub began this most poetic of concerto openings, not only did he have his listeners spellbound from the start, but it very much set the tone in which the rest of the work would be played out. Beethoven marked the first movement Allegro moderato. This effectively means moderately lively, but sadly some performers place too great an emphasis on Allegro. The actual tempo should indeed be a shade slower than that, to result in the more elegiac and unhurried playing. Even so, there was virtuosic fire aplenty when needed; the highly charged cadenzas in the first and last movements certainly attest to that.

The Andante con moto slow movement has been associated with the imagery of Orpheus taming the Furies – represented, respectively, by the piano and unison strings – at the gates to Hades, a suggestion of Beethoven’s 1859 biographer, Adolph Bernhard Marx. This short but especially poignant little strings-only movement, which leads without pause into start of the finale, proved an absolute gem in the sympathetic hands of Taub, the Sinfonia, and Forkgen’s inspired yet never intrusive direction. The final moment, when the piano slowly arpeggiates the home chord, over a hushed string background, was truly magical, yet so intrinsically unassuming.

In contrast, the Vivace finale is in traditional rondo form, far simpler in construction, and characterized by a very rhythmic, yet initially jaunty little theme. Clearly the composer’s intention was to write an uplifting, fun conclusion to what has gone on before. In the performance there was a palpable chemistry between soloist, conductor and orchestra. It resulted in many quick exchanges where the precision proved impeccable, and the ultimate realisation that everyone was having a ball.

It was once more left to Beethoven to provide a suitably high-spirited work to ensure the audience left with a decided spring in their step. The Seventh Symphony proved the ideal choice, especially since, according to the composer, it was ‘one of his best works’. The Seventh is not regularly identified by a title, like the Eroica (Third) and Pastoral (Sixth). But no less a personage than Richard Wagner, referring to the lively rhythms which permeate the work, called it the ‘Apotheosis of the Dance’. Mark Forkgen mentioned it in the pre-concert talk, when he described his particular concept of the symphony.

Perhaps because the piano was no longer on the stage, the orchestral sound radiated extra pizazz and immediacy. The Southbank Sinfonia’s quite superb performance captured every nuance of Beethoven’s score, particularly in terms of dynamics, phrasing and articulation. While each of the four movements was a gem on its own, the wise decision to play virtually without a break helped maintain the momentum throughout.

The listener may find it hard to realise that the Allegro con brio finale is, on paper at least, slower than the preceding scherzo movement marked Presto, with its slower Trio, allegedly based on an Austrian pilgrims’ hymn. Forkgen’s eminently skilled tempo management ensured that there was never a dull moment. It was rewarding to see how visibly enthusiastic his young instrumentalists were in following him to the letter, though with never any loss of textural clarity or overall control.

The strings, led by Portuguese violinist José Matias (not named in the programme as such), produced a wonderfully homogenous sound at either end of the dynamic range, whether in a supporting role, or leading the whole ensemble. The woodwind contribution was particularly impressive, and it would be invidious to pick out just one soloist for special mention. The trumpet section proved yet another asset, as did the horns, who coped with the often high tessitura of the writing largely unblemished. Last, but by no means least, timpanist Aaron Townsend made a robust contribution to the ensemble, as the finale rushed headlong to its whirlwind conclusion.

Concerts in the Levinsky Hall are still something of a learning process in terms of finely honing the venue’s acoustic to suit any number and combination of players and instruments. But this third event was definitely another step in the right direction, even if a few of the remaining drapes and padding might need to be sacrificed, in order to achieve the most natural acoustic, particularly in terms of reverberation time.

Pre-concert talks have become an integral, and highly enjoyable, part of the Musica Viva experience. They are now aided by microphones, so their effectiveness has been totally transformed. But one might now need to give some thought to the (relatively few) patrons who arrive after the talk has started, yet still endeavour to find the best seats available, to the detriment of the speakers and of the audience members already comfortably settled.

To close, I would like to recall what one programme-note author wrote about the Seventh Symphony: ‘the final movement zips along at an irrepressible pace that threatens to sweep the entire orchestra off its feet and around the theater [sic], caught up in the sheer joy of performing one of the most perfect symphonies ever written’. Had the author been at tonight’s concert, he could have written exactly the same words – but this time by way of a review.

Philip R Buttall

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