Hertfordshire Chamber Orchestra, Sunday 13 January 2008


Another concert, another nice old church…

The church of St-Mary-at-Hill, off Eastcheap in the City of London, is hidden away down a side alley, landlocked and invisible among other buildings (not to mention impenetrable – as they forgot to unbolt the doors until five minutes before the concert!).  Built by Sir Christopher Wren in 1677, it lost its box pews and much of its beautiful woodwork in a disastrous fire in 1988, but has been magnificently restored, with a bright, clean and uncluttered interior.  Resonant yet intimate, it makes a lovely concert venue for a small orchestra (strings, for those who care about such things) and a small audience.

Hertfordshire Chamber Orchestra was founded in 1966, and has been a guiding light of my life (and many other people’s lives) ever since.  In past decades I have been privileged to play with them on a number of occasions:  now chances are rare, apart from the annual phone call from Brynly which goes – ‘Jo, I’ve messed up my diary.  Can you do HCO for me on…?’  Sadly, because of my own crazy diary, the answer is nearly always ‘no’ (the last time I managed it was in 1999 – a great experience). 

The orchestra has worked with many distinguished conductors and soloists (an early revelation to me was Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony conducted by a very young Andrew Davis), and on Sunday it was directed from the leader’s desk and/or solo position by Paul Barritt, who was evidently enjoying himself as much as they were, hot-foot from gigs in Belgium and Tring.

The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s ‘Fingal’s Cave’ Overture (The Hebrides) – sonorous, energetic, un-muddy and a delight (notwithstanding Paul Barritt’s cheeky viola joke in his introductory words).  I became aware of details I’d never heard before – always a good sign – such as the single oboe note that is held throughout the chugging harmonic sequence which may or may not, as Paul suggested, represent the sound of the paddle-wheel on Mendelssohn’s Hebridean ferry.

Then came Haydn’s all too rarely heard Sinfonia Concertante for the unusual solo combination of violin, cello, oboe and bassoon (I can’t say ‘unique’, as Martinů wrote one in homage to it).  The piece is pure pleasure and fun, with no dark undertones (‘what you hear is what you get’).  Paul Barritt’s golden-toned 1695 Stradivarius (O lucky man!) had a worthy partner in Maud Hodson’s fearless, big-hearted cello playing.  Janie Shillito’s oboe was lovely – firm, sweet and true.  Brynly Clarke may have understandably mellowed from the ex-NYO enfant terrible he was in my student days (the word went around: ‘We’ll have to watch out, Bryn is coming!’ and he certainly kept the rest of us on our toes with his uniquely committed, characterful and brilliant bassoon playing), but he still makes a big sound, warm, jolly and commanding.

After the interval, three violin-solo movements from Mozart’s Haffner Serenade seemed to me a concerto too far;  apart from the powerful minor-key minuet movement, it wasn’t very memorable, but Paul was obviously having fun.  (It was noticeable that the violins played better when he was actually leading them than when he was standing in front of the orchestra as a soloist.) 

Finally, Schubert’s Third Symphony, a much loved little gem.  As throughout the concert, the ensemble playing was miraculous – playing without a conductor means that everyone has to listen and concentrate like mad, which can only be to the music’s advantage. 

The tempo of the ‘slow’ movement seemed a little rushed;  it is marked ‘Allegretto’, but I was reminded of Bernard Haitink’s comment that, in this jet age, conductors should walk more, otherwise they will forget how to do an Andante (‘walking pace’). That was the feeing I thought was missing here.  I don’t have a score, but surely the clarinet tune in the middle should be more or less at the basic tempo, with a slight brightening of mood (Richard Stockall played it brilliantly, by the way), whereas I got an uneasy feeling of the music being taken for an excessively brisk trot on a piece of elastic.

Anyway, the Scherzo was lively (if a bit ploddy – Schubert’s fault) and the oboe-bassoon duet in the trio was great (used to be the Burton Brothers’ party piece!).  And the Finale fizzed and crackled nicely.

Some of the players in this orchestra have been on my musical horizon for longer than I care to remember.  Most of us are older and greyer (and balder, in some cases), but the commitment, the sound and the standard of music-making remain undimmed.  Invidious to single out individual players, but a special word for Chris Harrison, who almost forty years ago I thought the most beautiful flute player I had ever heard, and I would be hard put to it to revise my opinion now.

Great concert, lovely church.  A rare treat – thank you.


picture from http://www.london-city-churches.org.uk/ — thanks

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