Saturday 12 November 2011

Tan/Arensky Chamber Orchestra/Kunhardt - Stravinsky, Wagner, and Ravel, 10 November 2011

Cadogan Hall

Stravinsky – Pulcinella: Suite
Wagner – Siegfried-Idyll
Ravel – Piano Concerto in G major

Melvyn Tan (piano)
Arensky Chamber Orchestra
William Kunhardt (conductor)

This concert marked the final event of the Arensky Chamber Orchestra’s 2011 season, though it will return in 2012 with a spring series devoted to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, ‘The Revolutionaries of Vienna’, a concert devoted to each composer. The concert also marked the expansion of this ensemble of fine young soloists into a full chamber orchestra, previous concerts having been focused upon strings. It was the first in which the ACO’s artistic director, William Kunhardt, conducted – and an impressive job he made of it too.

First off was Stravinsky’s suite from Pulcinella. (Or rather, first off was the ‘Polichinelle’, first of three mini-cocktails prepared especially for the evening: a typically distinctive touch, recipes provided on the back of the programme.) The opening Sinfonia was more graceful, sensuous even, certainly less driven, than one often hears, much to its advantage. One could say the same of a good part of the rest of the suite, though the Tarantella would be properly insistent, standing out all the more on that account. The bizarre individuality of Stravinsky’s scoring – Paul Griffiths once described the ballet as less a work than a way of hearing – was permitted to speak for itself. Solos were well taken, Kenny Sturgeon’s oboe an especial joy in the Serenata. The Scherzino was rhythmically alert and nicely shaded, its changing demands well negotiated by Kunhardt. A smart, stylish Toccata featured excellent wind and brass playing: proof, were it needed, that expansion of forces was working well. Only the Gavotta lacked a little incision, at some times sounding a little tentative. Stravinsky’s inimitable ear for colour was once again restored to our consciousness in the Finale. Special mention should go to leader, Sulki Yu, whose poised, assured manner set the tone for the ensemble as a whole. And if Sir Neville Marriner’s old Academy of St Martin in the Fields recording – a favourite of mine for the suite, as opposed to full ballet – were smoother, this playing arguably possessed greater character.

Following a sip of the ‘Tribschen’, a cream-based cocktail, we moved on to the Siegfried-Idyll, a formidably difficult work to bring off in one overarching span. The players responded to Kunhardt’s sensitive direction with aplomb, their versatility showing in an immediately mellower tone than that adopted for Stravinsky, the arch anti-Wagnerite (at least in theory). Much was beautifully ‘sung’, just as it should be, with real warmth at climaxes, the occasional more four-square moment quickly effaced by the skill and generosity of the music-making on offer.

A Paris Mojito led us into Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto, with Melvyn Tan as soloist. Tan has a rather peculiar podium manner, which takes a little getting used to; I felt, moreover, that he and the orchestra were not always of one mind, especially during the outer movements. Where differences occurred, I admit that the orchestra’s seemed to be the better mind. For instance, the splendidly jazzy orchestral colours of the first movement and Kunhardt’s eager relish to luxuriate in Ravel’s harmonies contrasted with Tan’s more aggressive approach. There was a spellbinding moment of near-but-not-quite-stasis led by the excellent harpist (Anneke Hodnett) too. Tan seemed much more at home in the slow movement, the opening cantilena beautifully handled: performed in more Romantic, almost Chopinesque, fashion than often, but it worked. The orchestra was on fine form throughout, temperature again higher than one tends to hear, but that is no bad thing. If the finale suffered somewhat from an initially plodding tempo – later corrected – there were some riotous orchestral solos to enjoy. If Tan does not seem always to have achieved unmitigated success in transferring full-time to the modern piano, then the increased orchestral forces employed surely compensated.

The ACO has reached the final six from a shortlist of nine hundred for a Sky Arts Ignition Award. Apparently members of the jury were present; they should have been duly impressed.