Symfonieorkest Vlaanderen warm onthaald in Engeland

⭐⭐⭐⭐ — "The strings played with commendable attack and athleticism, and the playing of the woodwind and brass was confident, fresh and translucent in quality."



Drums of war:
Flanders Symphony Orchestra at Cadogan Hall

By Alexander Hall, 16 March 2019


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Think of Flanders and most people of a certain generation would recall fields of poppies and the killing fields of the First World War. Yet this erstwhile medieval principality in the Low Countries has much more to offer: the Flanders Symphony Orchestra for one, formed in 1960 and with regular concert series in Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels and Ghent. This Cadogan Hall concert was given as part of its current British tour. Jan Latham-Koenig, principal conductor since 2013, has clearly had a tonic effect on the sixty or so members of the ensemble, for the strings played with commendable attack and athleticism, and the playing of the woodwind and brass was confident, fresh and translucent in quality.
 

Filippo Gorini © Mat Hennek

This was very much apparent in the curtain-raiser, the overture to one of Rossini’s earlier operas, L’italiana in Algeri, in which a perky oboe solo segued neatly into a lively Allegro section which glittered with all the shafts of southern sunshine this Italian master could summon up, the percussion adding further sparkle. Latham-Koenig’s instinct for operatic pacing was also evident in the introit to the second half, Puccini’s Crisantemi. Described as an elegy for string orchestra (it was originally written for string quartet), this emerged as a possible prelude to one of the composer’s undiscovered operas. An initial sigh of regret quickly gave way to an exploration of the darker, dramatic veins at work, the burnt sienna, indigo, ochre and umber colouring suggestive of grand Renaissance paintings.


One clear link between both main works derived from the drums of war heard menacingly in the background. Beethoven’s C minor piano concerto was conceived and written during revolutionary times and the political turbulence of the Napoleonic period is reflected in the stormy ferment of the first movement. Latham-Koenig’s soloist was the studious-looking winner in 2015 of the Bonn Beethoven piano competition, Filippo Gorini. There was much to admire in his solo playing: a Mozartian gracefulness and limpid clarity, heard to full effect in the succession of half tones, and a daringly slow but sustained traversal of the central Largo movement. Yet this part of the concerto also provided further confirmation that Gorini prefers the twilight to bright sunlight.


That was where he parted company with Latham-Koenig: the two were obviously in different worlds, with hardly any eye contact between the soloist and his conductor or, for that matter, with members of the orchestra. Where Latham-Koenig stressed the forceful and heroic elements, with a magnificently assertive hard-sticked timpanist providing a thrilling martial framework to the soloist’s cadenza, Gorini remained in lyrical mode. This was much closer to the C minor of the Pathétique sonata than the Coriolan overture. Others too have found more impishness in the light-heartedness of the closing Rondo – Allegro. Strange then that in his encore, the G minor Capriccio from the Op.116 Fantasien by Brahms, Gorini gave full voice to the Allegro passionato marking.


Apart from the sombre, black-edged introduction with its louring atmosphere, there is nothing “Scottish” about Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony at all. Schumann was not alone in praising the warm, lyrical qualities in the music, wrongly attributing them to the Italian Symphony. It is a work without a single dull moment, and Latham-Koenig was a miraculous facilitator of its multi-faceted richness. Having recently heard one young conductor reduce Mendelssohn to prim and proper classical proportions, I enjoyed this enormously: a reading which gloried in full-bloodedness without ever sacrificing good taste, alive to the beating Romantic heart that defined this composer as much as his conventional background and training. It was on his visit to Scotland in 1829 that Mendelssohn met Sir Walter Scott, each of whose novels he had read with great enthusiasm.


Many fine details from this performance linger in the memory. The fiery fervour of the first movement’s Allegro section, driven along by Latham-Koenig like clouds billowing across the sky on a windy day, followed by pastel-like shadings in the minor mode, restlessness and repose, compression and expansion: the traditional four seasons in one day. Here already were the war-like omens picked out by the timpanist, foreshadowing the composer’s original Allegro guerriero marking for the finale where the fierce dotted rhythms at the start conjured up a warlike gathering of the clans. In the Scherzo the upper strings might have lacked the warming sweetness of a Drambuie, but they had exactly the thistledown quality that Mendelssohn calls for in the shimmering textures.


The first clarinet is primus inter pares amongst the woodwind in this symphony. How fortunate to hear a player of Mourek Daniel’s character at the start of the Scherzo and again, after that magical moment of stillness before the coda, launching the concluding peroration, strings dancing infectiously, wind and brass supremely confident in the final blaze of colour.

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