MUSIC / A voice from the deep: Robert Maycock on 25 years of the Orchestra of St John's and a first performance for Diana Burrell

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
It is some while since the Orchestra of St John's Smith Square lived up to its name. An orchestra it sounded like, but you could find it playing almost anywhere else in Britain. The home season that began on Thursday reflects the getting together of several acts, especially the orchestra's management, and the will to mark its 25th anniversary with a relaunch. This brought it a full house and a commission from Diana Burrell also destined to have trouble living up to its name.

Das Meer, das so gross und weit ist, da wimmelt's ohne Zahl grosse und kleine Tiere - a title which even the composer called 'extravagant' and the Radio Times balked at listing in full - is a bit of a sea piece, and a bit of a party piece, since it covers a swarm of activity for all sections. Part of its pleasure, at least in such a polished performance, is simply watching the players getting stuck in. But the music, like much of Burrell's, is visual in more profound senses, including its architect-like instinct for proportions and its sense of place. Burrell has written landscape pieces before; this one's title, from Luther's translation of Psalm 104, uses the verse about the great, wide sea containing assorted beasts and countless creepy-crawlies.

Once again, though, it has the feel of open skies and bracing winds. Nobody in English music since Britten has caught it so surely. Pounding basses and wild, dancing violins begin it. Violas lob a projectile, but it skims off the waves. A more urgent effort breaks the surface and reaches the teeming life within, which regroups and begins combat among intense, Xenakis-like slitherings. The fugue gathers energy and inspects the marine life again in quick cross-cuts like the climax of a film - altogether one of Burrell's most concentrated and enlivening pieces.

As a building, St John's suits chamber orchestras (so long as they are light in brass or percussion), and strings alone best of all. Tippett's Little Music for Strings sounded as full and resonant as the Burrell, not always so clean in intonation but shaping the phrases with robust rhythm and generous tone, singing purposefully through Tippett's maze of counterpoint. Mozart's Clarinet Concerto was steady and rather subdued, as if on its best behaviour in the outer movements, with Emma Johnson's solo steering a course between melting lyricism and bounding vivacity. Her reticent line opened out later in the slow movement to reveal a touching level of pained but uncomplaining expression.

Schubert's Fifth Symphony began quick and light, building muscle as it went on and, in the Andante, catching just the right tempo for this warm, big-toned playing. John Lubbock, founder and conductor, was probably the only musician in common with earlier times, but the performance immediately brought back the vitality and sense of relish that always used to characterise them.