Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Boyd, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Pass the smelling salts, please

It is hard not to feel sympathy for Smithson when listening to the Symphonie Fantastique. In the Réveries and the breathless waltz of Un bal, she is an unknowably lovely confection of flute and violins. By the time her admirer has brooded in the lowering countryside (Berlioz's Cézanne-esque Scène aux champs), murdered her, and been executed (Marche au supplice), she has become a venereal grotesque: a shrieking daub that, in the form of a gaudy clarinet, dances among the rattling bones and necrotic shades of the Songe d'une nuit du Sabbat.

So intense are the colours of Berlioz's instrumentation that smelling salts should be handed out with the programme. Played by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Douglas Boyd this week, as the centrepiece of a programme that began with the rosy dawn of Hadyn's Le matin and underlined the orchestra's sensitivity as accompanists in Joan Rodgers's delicate accounts of Mozart's Parto, Parto and Exsultate, jubilate, it was a synaesthetic experience: an admixture of Beethoven, Gluck and Rameau, and a pre-echo of the cinematic Romanticism of Mahler.

The standard of the COE needs little reiteration. There is no chamber orchestra to match it, either in terms of its technical virtuosity, the vitality of its sound, or the expressivity that extends through every section. Listing the players whose solo contributions were uniformly dazzling would take more space than I have, but special mention should go to Marieke Blankestijn, Richard Lester, François Leleux, Rachel Frost, and Richard Hosford.

Boyd, formerly the orchestra's principal oboist, has long been tipped as a conductor of tremendous potential. On Tuesday night, despite or because of some frayed edges in his accelerandi and rallentandi, and the extreme tempi of Haydn's minuet (stately) and Berlioz's waltz (very fast), the extent of that potential was clear. If Boyd doesn't continue to enlighten and develop and provoke well into his 70s, like that other former oboist Sir Charles Mackerras, I shall eat whatever hat the nursing home permits me to keep.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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