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Saturday, 24 May 2014

Nicholas Collon conducts at Cambridge Corn Exchange

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

23 May

Apologies that, at the time of the Vaughan-Williams-focused preview of this concert at Cambridge’s Corn Exchange (@CambridgeCornEx), it was overlooked that The Royal Philarmonic Orchestra (@rpoonline) is the Orchestra in Residence.

Under the baton of rising conductor Nicholas Collon (increasingly guesting with big orchestras, as well continuing The Aurora Orchestra), we had a programme of Britten, Elgar, and Vaughan Williams. (And the RPO return next season with highlights such as Stravinsky’s Suite* from The Firebird, and Brahms’ Symphony No. 2…)

Four Sea Interludes – Benjamin Britten

The programme note tells us that Britten resembled Stravinsky*, in conducting the Interludes as a separate entity days after Peter Grimes’ premiere.

Titled ‘Dawn’, ‘Sunday Morning’, ‘Moonlight’, and ‘Storm’, they evoke not only moods, which crucially punctuate the opera, but also a location in time and space : Collon was wisely unhurried with ‘Dawn’, not led on by its beautiful surface appeal, and getting an unfussy, clean, but sweet, sound from the RPO – allowing the resonant brass and rumble, as of swell, both to contrast with the rest of the ensemble, and come together.

In the next portrait, the cross-beats and near-dissonances were a delight, with the chromatic slide excitingly brought off, and filling the moment both with energy, and that trio of bell-notes, doom, and dread. ‘Moonlight’ was again controlled, daringly awaiting those fresh piercings of light from space : yet the xylophone that – with the harp – captures them ends with tortured motifs against the strings.

Finally, Collon built not the noisiest ‘Storm’, but with the strong natural suggestion of possibly going higher. He brought out the laughter in the brass, and ended crisply and exactly. A refreshing first course !

Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op. 85 – Edward Elgar

Another work (as the symphony is) in four movements, but a good contrast with the Britten, because of the different emotive qualities of the solo cello part, not least under Guy Johnston (who was playing because of Julian Lloyd Webber’s unlucky forced retirement), who, amongst other things, expressively brought to this well-known work :

* Pacing, and an inward interpretation, of the first main theme, but reaching out for brighter things, and bring it back with electricity

* Unforced string-tone, and a plaintive, guitaristic feel to plucking strings

* A teasing tremolo, as if of a young animal playing

* A lightness of touch in sustained passage-work

* Singing, not shouting, the famous melody-line, with Johnston leaning into the instrument, as if hearing the music within it

* Moments of quiet, leading to a different mode of projection, where some single notes just spoke volumes

* The physicality, and swaying, of playing after a theme that felt full of weariness and preoccupation

* A sense of rumination, and ending with a voice resolved to follow its own counsel before reprising the main theme and a momentary tutti at the close

Symphony No. 3 [no stated key, and first entitled A Pastoral Symphony] – Ralph Vaughan Williams

At the outset, a light, floral feel is weighted by the bass, then joined by Vaughan Williams’ beloved obbligato violin. Nicely balanced playing and phrasing suggested the magical, yet tinged with something indefinably other. Collon ran the first two movements together, which, when the Molto moderato ends (after sensations of a gently drifting swell) with the moving, plangent reediness of the oboe, makes sense for introducing the horn sonority.

In the strings, Collon brought out hesitancy, uncertainty, which developed into an uneasy sense of anxiety. Whatever exactly the trumpet calls may mean, the pianissimo was pregnant, and reminded of the composer’s words (describing Boult’s conducting**) : it was a positive, sensitive pianissimo, full of meaning and tension.

Next, the Moderato pesante seems to break through the tension, rising to its lovely main theme, but Collon held course, allowing no slackness in the brass theme (accompanied by cymbals). Gloriously sonorous brass intervals then heralded the carol-like coda.

For the Lento finale, Collon had soprano Sally Harrison placed off stage, singing wordlessly in an unshowy but haunting way. After the well-located harp melody came feelings of richness, an excitement that gave way to tenderness, revisiting previous themes, and a soaring sense of pride. The song recurred, and the strings faded away.

However many knew this work, people seemed both quietly attentive to it and appreciative of the RPO and Collon’s skill.


* Though unclear whether it is that from 1911, 1919, or 1945 (as Stravinsky, as an ambitious composer, was forever making arrangements).

** The final movement of Symphony No. 6.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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