Saturday, 16 December 2017

Violin and viola soloists shine

Henley Symphony Orchestra | Concert Hall, Reading | Saturday, November 12

THIS concert offered a crowd-pleasing programme of famous works by Schubert (his overture, Rosamunde), Mozart (who contributed the Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra), and Debussy, from whose pen we heard the first two of his Nocturnes and the suite La Mer — his visions of nature at its most sensuous and powerful.

The event started well with a pre-concert talk, illustrated and well presented by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society. His lecture acted as a pre-cursor to Debussy’s awesome representations of sea and sky in their various moods, giving a fascinating account of how clouds and waves formed and behaved. The talk was well attended and clearly much appreciated.

The concert proper began with a performance of Schubert’s popular overture to Rosamunde that on this occasion lacked sparkle and failed to convince. The dramatic chords with which the piece began were ragged and unbalanced, the violins being barely audible.

The piece settled down to a tempo that was a little too slow to sustain the beautiful flowing oboe solo that introduces the main theme. The pace felt uneasy thereafter, not helped by intonation problems in the violins when they deigned to be heard at all. It was not the orchestra’s finest achievement.

Honour was restored when the orchestra was joined on stage by two very fine soloists — Laura Samuel, violin, and Scott Dickinson, viola. Both are members of the renowned Nash Ensemble and occupy principal positions in the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

So it came as no surprise that they performed as though they were a single instrument, matching each other’s phrasing and interpretation to perfection. Their cadenzas sounded like love duets, perfectly intertwined and favouring endearing sensitivity over virtuosity.

The orchestral involvement was supportive and well matched with the viola section’s divisi passages making a warm and reassuring contribution from Mozart’s favourite instrument.

The second half of the programme was devoted to two of Debussy’s NocturnesNuages and Fêtes — followed by his “quasi symphony”, La Mer. Here, again, the orchestra was not always at its best, with some inelegant solos emanating from the woodwind.

But the contributions from the two harps were delightful, and the brass, percussion, violas, cellos and basses gave confident and solid support throughout.

Of the five Debussy movements Fêtes and Dialogue du vent et de la mer were the best — the latter bringing the concert to a suitably dramatic and satisfying conclusion that was well received.

Henley Symphony Orchestra has many excellent musicians in its ranks and has a good reputation as one of the best orchestras in the region, playing demanding programmes to a professional standard. Let us trust that their next concert reverts to the high level of ensemble playing we have come to expect from them.

John Burleigh

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