Saturday 16 January 2016

Ridout/Melos Sinfonia/Zeffman - Mendelssohn, Schoenberg, Clarke, and Haydn, 15 January 2016

Milton Court Concert Hall

Mendelssohn – Overture: The Hebrides, op.26
Schoenberg – Chamber Symphony no.1 in E major, op.9
Desmond Clarke – Void-Song (world premiere)
Haydn – Symphony no.88 in G major

Timothy Ridout (viola)
Melos Sinfonia
Oliver Zeffman (conductor)

Mendelssohn’s evergreen Hebrides Overture typically adventurous programme from the Melos Sinfonia under its artistic director, Oliver Zeffman. This was an impressive reading, although occasionally I felt the lack of a greater number of strings. Generally, however, a gorgeous orchestral sound was the order of the day. Zeffman directed with a fine sense of inevitability, everything in its place. Perhaps there were occasions when he might have driven a little less hard, especially during the recapitulation, but I think that is more a matter of personal taste than anything else. There was, throughout, great clarity to the orchestral textures, permitting Mendelssohn’s often astonishingly original instrumental combinations to shine through.

Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony is an extraordinarily difficult work to bring off, and was less entirely successful. There was much to admire: some splendid instrumental playing, again great clarity, and woodwind lines that seemed often to point their way to the apparently different world of Pierrot lunaire. During the ‘slow movement’, they sounded transmuted – which, in a sense, they are – into lines from late Brahms, almost cast adrift from tonal moorings, yet not quite. There was also a creditably strong sense of Lisztian transformation. Set against that, balance was often a problem. Likewise tempi – especially the very fast tempo set early on – were not always maintained. There were a few cases when the ensemble was not wholly together too.

Desmond Clarke’s Void-Song, a single-movement viola concerto, received a very convincing world premiere. Repeated or additive pulses, as the composer explained in his programme note, and stochastically generated fields of events offer contrasted compositional principles with which the work proceeds, both in contrast and in combination. A string-dominated orchestra offers considerable opportunity for interplay between soloist and ensemble; even at the opening, the way the music rises – quickly – from the lower strings seems to prefigure the appearance, albeit with very different material, of the soloist. The closing winding down is another immediately noticeable feature, whistling (literally) woodwind offering an intriguing effect in combination. Zeffman and his orchestra seemed very much on top of the score, as did the excellent soloist, Timothy Ridout. This was perhaps the finest performance of the evening, insofar as I could tell (!)

Haydn’s Symphony no.88 might perhaps have smiled a little more, but there was real rigour to the performance it received. Motivic integrity was very much the hallmark of the first movement, which it was good to hear in resolutely unsentimental fashion. I wondered, however, whether the interplay between first and second violins would have been heard to greater advantages, had they been split to the left and right of the conductor. The slow movement flowed nicely, ‘details’, if one may can call them that, well integrated into the longer line. It retained a welcome air of mystery, of discovery. The minuet and trio were taken one-to-a-bar, without losing necessary grandeur; the trio’s rusticity was especially delightful. However, the finale sounded a little too careful. It need not be taken ruinously fast; indeed, it should not, by definition. However, alongside a welcome sense of the sheer profusion of Haydn’s ideas, a little more abandon might not have gone amiss. It must, however, have been a devil of a programme to rehearse.