Classical review: Jennifer Pike, Sharp, Arensky, Kunhardt, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London


Ever since she made history by winning the BBC Musician of the Year contest at the age of twelve, Jennifer Pike has been setting a furious pace as a performer, while maintaining a healthy academic balance.

After three years at the Guildhall she went on to take a first in music at Oxford; she records prolifically, premieres new works, and takes interesting risks. While Angela Hewitt was delivering Bach and Beethoven in the Royal Festival Hall, Pike and the Arensky Chamber Orchestra were pursuing more experimental pairings next door.

The first of these was so obvious that one wonders why it’s seldom made: Ravel’s orchestral arrangement of his suite Le tombeau de Couperin was interspersed with movements from Couperin’s own Concerts royaux. Ravel’s intention was less a homage to Couperin than to the Baroque style he perfected, and his music gracefully bridged the 250-year gap. Under William Kunhardt’s baton this young orchestra gave spirited performances, catching the note of melancholy underlying the Ravel – each piece was written to commemorate a friend who had died in the 1914-18 war – and setting it off with 18 century ebullience.

The second half of the concert began with actor Matthew Sharp spot-lit at a desk and reading – with commendably un-histrionic restraint – Beethoven’s anguished Heiligenstadt Testament, while the orchestra played sotto voce the Adagio from his Opus 132 string quartet. And the meld was effective. ‘O you men who consider me to be misanthropic,’ wrote the composer, ‘how unjust you are, for you do not know the secret… it was not possible for me to say, “Speak louder, shout, because I am deaf.”’ The contrast between the 30-year-old’s despair and the ecstatic calm of the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ he went on to compose at the end of his life was moving in the extreme.

After which the lights went up and Jennifer Pike and the orchestra launched into Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Her opening upward flight was forceful and assured, and her sound had a tempered-steel purity, but her virtuosity was ice-cold; maybe it was Kunhardt’s fault as much as hers, but the music didn’t breathe enough, didn’t expand. In the slow movement Pike let in some warmth, and she despatched the finale with tremendous brio: at 24 she’s already a big musical presence, but she has yet to learn – and in time she will - how to give this work the big performance it demands. Her Bach encore was immaculate.