Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony

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Orchestra London's Classics and Beyond Series: November 2013

Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony: Orchestra London's Classics and Beyond Series November 2013
Magical Music Making With An Organ Before Dancing Through the Countryside

by Brian Hay

The performance of the Opus 4, No. 5 Organ Concerto in F Major that opened this show was one of the single most ravishing moments of perfection I've seen from Orchestra London since first watching them. The tempo that Conductor Alain Trudel picked for each of the movements was perfect. The balance of the orchestral forces, both in numbers and physical layout, was perfect. The playing of the musicians was a model for combining the best elements of precision and passion. The work by organist Christopher Herrick was a marvel of deft virtuosity that beautifully illustrated the term restraint as if he'd been born to the practice. The only thing not perfect was that the concerto only lasts about ten minutes. There wasn't anything anyone could do about that though, not unless they added a lot of repeats. I wanted more though and I make no bones about Handel being one of my favourite composers. After this transcendently beautiful reading, somewhere, the Saxon Haydn once described as "The Father of Us All" was smiling.

Most of the players left the stage for a performance of a pair of Canzonas by Giovanni Gabrielli. Before starting them Alain stated that the pairings of trumpets and trombones were set in different keys to achieve the tone colour laid out in Gabrielli's writing. It made sense and it worked. This group created a sound beautifully nuanced with subtlety that kept the single instruments audible while combining their musical colours to great effect. The second work abandoned the French Horn relying completely on the tonal balance between trumpets, trombones and organ. Chamber music isn't the norm for orchestral performance but it exposes audiences to music they likely wouldn't hear live otherwise. It also gives different members of ensembles chances to show what do more exclusively and familiarizes people with the specific sounds of different instruments.

Francis Poulenc is always an interesting, if unsettling, composer. His Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani in G Minor lived up to that idea perfectly. After the almost serene tranquillity of the first three works the early notes from soloist Christopher Herrick hit like a lightning strike. I half expected to see a puff of smoke where the people beside me had been. That's part of the nature of Poulenc's work though. Like many of his pieces the Concerto is an odyssey through pensive reflection, moments of indescribable beauty threaded with solemn introspection that sometimes lands at the harshest realities life can put forward. The enormous emotional bridge between the abrupt descents of the organ and many of the themes in the concerto along with its introspective nature was maintained brilliantly by soloist and ensemble. The work from the string players was impeccable while the rapport between Herrick and timpanist D'arcy Gray was intuitive enough to appear symbiotic.

To showcase the work of Christopher Herrick the orchestra employed a huge screen the way large venues use monitors to show what band members are doing to people in the nosebleed seats. Everything Herrick did was visible and the huge screen also provided a great centrepiece behind the orchestra. It was a great idea and hopefully, one that will be used again. For the second half the camera was squarely on Alain while he guided the orchestra through the featured work on the program, Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony.

He looked so serious.

That's Alain though. His focus is as intent on stage as his smile and humour are ready away from it. The reading he gave the piece lightened the strings, moved more of the onus to the winds and enhanced its imagery. This performance was a set of vibrant musical canvasses enriched with a sense of the romantic imagery of the master painters of the 19th century. The cheerful early morning depicted in the opening passages conjured thoughts of a glimmering sunrise. Sweeping string passages crafted pictures of waves cascading gently to shore during the scene by the brook. Dances between the oboe, bassoon and string players portrayed the merriment of the villagers vividly. Throbbing cellos and basses punctuated by rolling timpani passages delivered the ferocity of the storm while lightly fluid work from the violins drew clearly, the serenity of its aftermath.

The wind players embraced their enhanced roles with a flourish. Oboe player Ian Franklin and Bassoonist Spencer Phillips threaded their playing through the orchestral workings nicely. Flautist Kaili Maimets and clarinetist Graham Lord established an enchanting dialogue during the Scene by the Brook. I learned afterward that Kaili was ill but it didn't show in her playing. The singularity in her tone and phrasing is brilliant every time out. Graham Lord stepped up and seized his moments like a rock star. The authority in playing demanded and held rapt attention. He's always been good but this performance stands on its own. He knew it too — he looked like the cat that got the canary after the show but that's okay. Somebody who did something that well deserves their moment in seventh heaven.

This was magical. What can I say?

This performance took place at St. Paul's Cathedral on Wednesday November 13, 2013. This review was written to convey impressions of what it was like to be there. If it's bubbly it's because the music's still dancing around in there.

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Organist Christopher Herrick
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