The arrangements by which the EUCO puts itself about across Europe takes in both grand and modest venues, which accounts for its appearance at Abergavenny’s bijou theatre. Not to be confused with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, founded by Claudio Abbado, though it sometimes is, the EUCO still does major work. It has appeared with some of the world’s leading soloists. Ten years ago a recording it made of Haydn symphonies and divertimenti was Editor’s Choice in Gramophone magazine, and in 2014 its Naxos recording of Vivaldi double concertos with Julian and Jiaxin Lloyd Webber rose high in the Classic FM charts. Its music for Abergavenny might have been a Classic FM conspectus, as it were, and no worse for that.
A programme including Baroque as well as much later music usually means that the orchestra, fifteen players here, arrive on the platform with ‘modern’ instruments and no concessions to previous usage. The presentation, though, was otherwise redolent of earlier times in that the musicians, bar the two cellists, stood up throughout and in Hans-Peter Hofmann it had an all-action concert-master using body language that signalled alterations of dynamic, not all of them abrupt. He joined Anita Martinek, Henry Chandler, and Carmen Montes in Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins in B minor of Opus 3 from his first set of concertos known as L’estro armonico, widely regarded as a landmark event in European orchestral music. Listeners in the 18th century must have sat up in astonishment at how prevailing models of the concerto in Italy were shaken up in such a delightful way. This performance gave some indication of that – it was fibrous and animated, with the solo quartet and the backing ripieno attacking the quick first movement with gusto and throwaway virtuosity. The central colourful larghetto presages The Four Seasons, but it was back to the dance in the final allegro, the accompanying triple time prompting more dexterity from the front four.
The busy outer movements of the Vivaldi would have distracted attention from another element of Baroque technique, the diminution or absence of vibrato. There are many others, strictly speaking, but speaking strictly and insisting on obedience to tradition are not necessarily guarantees of enjoyment in this repertory. For decades, performances like this one were predicated on the idea that if Baroque music sounded different without reference to how it was played in former times, then it could still be perfectly acceptable; it embraced belief in the strong possibility, for example, that Beethoven in particular would have relished composing for and playing on the modern piano. The central movement of J.S.Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor (BWV 1043) was a case in point. The two soloists, Eline Pauwels and Hofmann again – you couldn’t keep the lively man down – made a case for vibrato in those lengthy, arching lines that seem to be reaching for some mild flourish, though here the pitch variation among those using it was judicious and didn’t draw much attention to itself. More gratifyingly noticeable was the way the ripieno stayed in the background as much as possible, allowing the solo lines to inter-twine sensuously in an almost Romantic fashion. It was good in Pachelbel’s ubiquitous Canon in D to hear the separate strands clarified to the extent that it sounded like a piece of music rescued from the excesses of over-exposure.
The same was true of Barber’s seemingly-omnipresent Adagio for Strings, so often reduced to a melancholic mush by too many instruments; it started out as a string quartet movement. Fifteen was about right, especially in being able to sustain without over-emphasis its phrase lengths and rich harmonising, and making that journey to the climax scarcely possible to predict. It was the strongest performance of the afternoon. Which is not to cast the final item, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C in any sort of lesser light. It’s where, appropriately for a finale, Hofmann’s spirited leadership came into its own in the sense that everyone was on the cusp of pre-empting. The work is Tchaikovsky at his most outgoing, as opposed to being deeply introspective and distraught.The EUCO under-scored that by attacking the lively outer movements with vigour, setting up a flowing motion throughout, and giving due attention to the moderato movement as a waltz one could dance to, and to the larghetto’s elegy a sense of only passing regret: it certainly doesn’t warrant the almost formal desolation of Barber’s work, and didn’t here.
Nigel Jarrett is a writer and critic and a former daily-newspaper journalist. He won the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction and the Templar Shorts Prize. He has published a novel; a poetry collection; and two volumes of stories, the first, Funderland, being praised in the Guardian, Independent, Times and others. His three-story pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy, is due soon from Templar Press. He lives in Monmouthshire and swims a lot.
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