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REVIEW: Portrait of an Englishman
Wed 30th May 2012 - 7:13

Michael Cookson reviews Manchester Camerata's last concert of the season for the the prestigious Seen and Heard International website.

Gabor Takacs-Nagy and the Manchester Camerata    From the Bridgewater Hall 'Portrait of an Englishman' was the Manchester Camerata's last regular concert of a successful season. But there is more to come as the Camerata have several special concerts planned over the summer such as the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Celebration concert at Leeds Town Hall and the Fireworks concert at Cholmondeley Castle.

Having attended most of the Camerata's Manchester performances this season I have been impressed with the unity of the chamber orchestra, their expressive playing and colourful instrumental tone.
 
With an English theme to the concert it was no surprise that the opening work was by Elgar, his appealing and evocative score Introduction and Allegro for strings. This is quintessential Elgar and I suspect that few who have seen the Ken Russell 1962 BBC documentary about Elgar can disassociate this work from the image of Elgar riding over the Malvern Hills on a white pony. I felt Takács-Nagy took the opening of the piece rather too slowly and the passage for solo viola seemed flat and lifeless. The tempi did increase though, as did the weight of string sound, producing a breezy interpretation of freshness and breadth.

London based composer Brahim Kerkour was on the stage to introduce In Circulation, an interesting new work that was certainly worth hearing. I guess that the score had been given its world première the previous evening at Doncaster. This short five minute score required eight woodwind and four brass to be added to the strings. Kerkour says that he "sees a piece of music as an eco-system of colours" providing a score that concentrates on the relationship between colour, time and space. Incorporating swells of string sounds that vary widely in weight of volume and various string effects such as pizzicato, harmonics and glissandi also notable were the numerous dabs of colour from the winds.

Either side of the interval were two Vaughan Williams scores, both of them ubiquitous since the Classic FM radio station have got them fixed on their regular play lists. The problem is that these scores will almost inevitably become over-familiar if they haven't already. By way of introduction Takács-Nagy had the assistance of an orchestral player to recite a portion of the George Meredith poem The Lark Ascending that Vaughan Williams attached to the published score. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end. This sort of reciting in front of a large paying audience is best done by a professional presenter instead of terrifying the life out of an orchestral member. Giovanni Guzzo was the soloist in Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending who did a remarkable job of bringing freshness to this pastoral score from 1914, a reminder of the pre-Great War innocence that was about to be left behind. Using a marvellously sounding 1719 Santo Seraphin violin Guzzo brought out the most subtle shading and sharpness of focus that I have heard in live performance for some time. Contributions from the principal oboe, horn and clarinet were worthy of note.

One of the most famous of all English works is Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis premiered 102 years ago at the 1910 Three Choirs festival held at Gloucester cathedral. Practically I can understand why Takács-Nagy kept the players in a single grouping rather than divide the three sections into separate areas for a large string orchestra, a chamber-sized string orchestra and a string quartet. Playing with a profound sensitivity the radiant Camerata strings maintained a deep emotional tension that was exhilarating from the first note to the last. Leading by example towards the end of the score Adi Brett's short violin solo sounded exceptional.

Although it was written and premièred in London the inclusion of Haydn's Symphony No. 94 in G major 'Surprise' was somewhat stretching the English connection. A more appropriate choice for the English theme would have been either John Ireland's A Downland Suite or Frank Bridge's Suite for String Orchestra. Having said all that Haydn's set of twelve 'London' Symphonies of which the 'Surprise' Symphony forms a part are true masterworks. It was good to hear the 'Surprise' Symphony played by the Camerata on such marvellous form. In this insightful performance full of colourful expression the Allegros were vivacious and alive, and in the Andante the stealthy theme in the strings was played with a grave precision. As usual, wonderful oboe playing from Rachel Clegg underpinned the woodwinds.

This was a satisfying concert of mainly English music by the Manchester Camerata at the Bridgewater Hall. At around and hour and a quarter in length it was also the one of the shortest concerts that I've attended. I must single out Adi Brett for praise who led throughout the concert with real stability. Gábor Takács-Nagy in his inaugural season as music director has done a sterling job with his knowledge, skill and enthusiasm establishing the Camerata as a chamber orchestra of the first rank.
 

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