MUSIC / The past catches up: Anthony Payne reviews the New Queen's Hall Orchestra at the Barbican

Click to follow
The creation of a body of players like the New Queen's Hall Orchestra was surely only a matter of time. The wheel of authentic performing practice has turned virtually full circle and, in resurrecting a style and an orchestral sound that would have been current early this century, the orchestra is entering an area that has been realistically documented by early gramophone recordings.

It is perhaps difficult to believe that there could be significant differences between such a recent performing tradition and our own. Yet orchestras have developed radically over the last 60 years, aiming for increased brilliance, virtuosity and attack, in which brighter winds and wide bored brass instruments forced string sections to achieve an even more incisive and cutting sonority. Somewhere true expression began to give way to effect, and performances like those we heard by the NQHO under Barry Wordsworth at the Barbican Centre on Monday are proving revelatory.

The orchestra had already given several concerts in which much was promised but not all instrumental problems overcome. In impressive performances of music by Tchaikovsky, Bruch and Brahms, it seemed to have come into its own. And nowhere more so than in the radiant interpretation of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings. The sonority produced by gut-string instruments allowed an absolute clarity of polyphony at the same time as the warmest of blends, and the performance possessed a glowing quality, beyond the reach of brighter modern instruments.

The increasingly well integrated and reliable brass and wind sections made equally sonorous and clear textures possible in Bruch's First Violin Concerto, where the composer's characteristic blending of all the instrumental families was beautifully reproduced, providing an ideal context for Hagai Shaham's affecting and vivacious account of the solo part. In fact, the stage had been perfectly set for an engrossing performance of Brahms' First Symphony, and Wordsworth and his players did not disappoint.

This was an outstanding interpretation. Wordsworth shaped Brahms' mighty structures with determination and sensitivity, aided by the exceptional clarity that the orchestra was able to bring to the music's inner contrapuntal workings. The NQHO has clearly come of age.

The South Bank offered a more familiar aspect of authenticity the following night, when its newly appointed associate orchestra, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, brought an exhilarating Beethoven programme to the Queen Elizabeth Hall under Heinrich Schiff. After an explosive performance of the overture Egmont, in which the final victory symphony raised our excitement to fever pitch, we heard the excellent Alexei Lubimov in the Fourth Piano Concerto. The use of fortepiano placed the whole solo / tutti relationship in a new light, and the orchestra's crisp articulation and Lubimov's dry, clear keyboard textures brought dialoguing of the sharpest wit and clarity. Only in the Andante did one perhaps momentarily regret the lack of a modern instrument's sostenuto, although the strings' pert articulation made for stylish exchanges.

Finally Schiff directed an Eroica Symphony of forceful classical momentum, notably impressive for the insistent tread of the 'Funeral March', which generated something of pity and terror. If the final variations sounded a little breathless, and the first movement sometimes too relentless, this was still a purposeful and serious interpretation.

Comments