Kensington Symphony Orchestra plays Martinu…

kso.jpg 

…and wins! – I was tempted to say.

(And a nice picture of Martinů on the cover of the programme!)

Back to my favourite crucible, Cadogan Hall, on Tuesday for an extraordinarily interesting concert by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra.

The programme began with Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments – a  wonderful and truly original piece, written in memoriam Claude Debussy.  On first hearing, the music appears to be constructed of dozens of little fragments, like a mosaic, before it hits the final chorale which was Stravinsky’s initial reaction to Debussy’s death in 1918;  I was familiar with the much-quoted analysis by Edward T Cone, who realised that each fragment is part of a set of parallel ongoing developments, so every time a particular turn of phrase or instrumental idea comes round again, it has evolved slightly from where it was the last time you heard it.  But the illuminating KSO programme note by Peter Nagle (one of the cellists in the orchestra:  here’s a link to his own blog on the concert) also points out links between the structure of the piece and the Russian Orthodox burial service.  So the work is more of a requiem for Debussy than we knew.

The KSO gave a rich and sonorous performance, firmly held together by Russell Keable’s conducting. From where I was sitting (in cheapskate seats right at the back under the balcony – actually very good, apart from an intrusive pulsating hum [in G]  – lots of bass coming up through the wooden floor!) it sounded terrific, with colouristic details I hadn’t heard before, particularly from trumpets and horns.  My overall reaction was ‘What an ear Stravinsky had!’  How could he have known that THAT combination of oboes, cor anglais and trumpets at that moment would produce THAT unique sound…?  I don’t know what Debussy would have made of it, but as a tribute from one supreme master of sonorities to another, it is a tremendous piece, and the performance was resonant (in all senses) and most impressive.

Then came Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto – the one that, uniquely, begins with the piano on its own.  Very beautiful, accurate and characterful solo playing by Leon McCawley, no less;  great orchestral playing, and I was particularly struck by the impeccable woodwind intonation in the first movement.  My only quibble was with the cadenza:  I don’t have a score, and I confess I don’t know the piece well enough to know whether this was Beethoven’s fault or the soloist’s, but it seemed to go on as long as the rest of the movement, far outstaying its welcome and (I regret to say) actually sending me to sleep!  The slow movement – ‘Orpheus placating the Furies’ according to Liszt – was rock-solid, the bouncing finale appropriately jolly.  Very fine.

Then, after the interval – the reason I had come:  Martinů’s Fantaisies Symphoniques (Symphony No. 6)I have written elsewhere about Martinů’s extraordinarily magical late works;  this is one of the finest (I kept telling people it was ‘one of my favourite pieces’ – but alongside the Frescoes of Piero della Francesca or The Parables… how can one compare Pomerol with Pouilly Fuissé or Nicolas Feuillatte??).  Martinů could hardly have imagined an amateur orchestra getting anywhere near playing it, let alone with the skill and vividness Russell Keable drew from the KSO.

I once tried to analyse the score, but – to put it kindly – Martinů does little more than follow his imagination wherever it leads him, with a little help from a quotation from his haunting opera Julietta and a habit of occasionally reprising a large chunk to make it sound like a structured recapitulation.  But his sound-world is so numinous, his ideas so bright and imaginative, that you just have to go with the flow, dance with the weightless across-the-bar-line rhythms, and sing along with the (magnificent) violas and celli.

Martinů wrote the piece in 1953 for Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, saying that he was writing ‘a story for Charles’;  there are as many ways of playing it as there are conductors wishing to tell a ‘story’.  Russell Keable had his own firm ideas, and imposed his conception on the performance with unerring authority.  (Nice to hear that he didn’t  correct Martinů’s ‘wrong’ non-unisons in the brass towards the end of the second movement!)

Amazing playing, astonishing precision, especially from the woodwind and brass and the bright and accurate horn section.  A special word of admiration for the leader, Alan Tuckwood, who tackled the knotty little first-movement violin solo with more musicianship, accuracy and beautiful tone than many an orchestral leader on record!

Talking to members of the orchestra and others, I realised just how little Martinů’s music is known or appreciated.  The situation is slowly changing – helped by amazing and brave amateur performances like this one – but the problem is always that orchestras won’t gamble on the rehearsal time needed for these difficult works without a guaranteed audience – and audiences won’t come because they don’t know the music – and they don’t know the music because orchestras won’t play it – and so the merry-go-round goes on.

Come on, Classic FM, sock us with a campaign to popularise some of this extraordinary and beautiful music!  If you could do it for Górecki

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One Comment on “Kensington Symphony Orchestra plays Martinu…”


  1. Glad you enjoyed the gig! Leon did play Beethoven’s cadenzas, the very very long one in the first movement being one of two he wrote down, I believe.

    Lest I appear too much of a smartarse, I should point out that it was Richard Taruskin who first pointed out the links between Symphonies of Wind Instruments and the Russian Orthodox service, in his book “Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions”, which is well worth a read if you can find a copy.


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