Review: CUCO

JOE CONWAY found the psuedo-chat show interlude in this otherwise exciting evening a little superfluous.

borowiak Classical CUCO Music orchestra woods

Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra, 6th March 2010, West Road Concert Hall, 8pm, Saturday 6th March. £14

There was never a dull moment in Saturday's CUCO concert at West Road. Or rather there was, but it had nothing to do with the music-making and I'll keep it till later. Essentially this was an event-packed evening which in retrospect has taken on some strangely schizoid tendencies. There were many moments of sublime beauty in the first half but, as the evening wore on, things got progressively out of hand and eventually became almost farcical.

The real tragedy was that, through no fault of its own, the CUCO itself didn't appear to its best advantage in the rather bizarre predicament in which it found itself. This 40-strong chamber orchestra is actually an extremely effective outfit – tight and snappy in attack, with a very pleasing balance between strings and wind, and with some outstanding solo players.

So what caused the sweaty palms and nervous grins on Saturday night? In a nutshell, the orchestra was exposed to two dominant musical personalities who were 180 degrees apart. It was clear from the opening of Beethoven's Coriolan overture that the conductor Kenneth Woods valued brisk speeds and ruthlessly straight-through lines. While the pianist in Chopin's first concerto Mateusz Borowiak was clearly happy to linger and dwell on the music.

Yet the good thing to report is that their collaboration in the concerto itself was actually highly successful and quite free from tension! This was
simply because Kenneth was content to follow Mateusz' delightfully wayward solo line. The slight pauses in the first movement, slowing down massively at times in the second, and easing into quicker speeds in the finale were all handled with consumate skill by soloist, conductor and orchestra alike.

As for Mateusz Borowiak it's hard to hand out too much praise. He seems to have absorbed this wonderful music by the great Polish composer with his mother's milk. The immense technical difficulties of the solo part simply didn't exist for him. Instead he focused on the music's expressive qualities and its delicate nuances, phrasing exquisitely, adding echo effects and, as I said, pulling the speed this way and that.

But sadly, when Mateusz left the platform and the piano was wheeled away, any restraining influence on Kenneth Woods disappeared too. Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin is such a lovely score, poignantly attempting to evoke the world of a famous 18th century French composer through a veil of romanticism, impressionism and translucent orchestral colour. Yet, in Kenneth's interpretation its reflective qualities were ignored and the thoughtful and intimate side of the music swept aside. Only in the middle section of the Rigaudon was there any respite from the inexorable onward drive.

To be fair, Kenneth Woods' approach in the Beethoven overture at the start of the programme had worked well. Coriolan is a highly dramatic piece and responded to Kenneth's cut-and-thrust no-nonsense treatment. But any hope that the same would be true of Beethoven's second symphony was doomed from the start. Much of this music is genial, even lyrical, and it needs space to breathe. Kenneth's mantra seemed to be fast and still faster. He chose to repeat the exposition of the first movement and I felt sure that the second run-through was a few seconds quicker than the first! Does he have a fast heart-beat? Did he have a train to catch? As I've said, this easy-going symphony soon became a kind of Keystone Cops music routine which did no favours to anybody.

Oh! and the boring bit? Mateusz Borowiak has recently won the prestigious Nigel W Brown music prize. I've no doubt at all that it was really well deserved and also that everyone at West Road on Saturday night sincerely wishes Mateusz a truly fabulous career. But was it really necessary to put on a kind of 20-minute chat-show midway through the concert, complete with votes of thanks and bottles of bubbly?

One of the things about the classical tradition is that the music, the emotion, and the applause taken together say it all. And that even the best-intentioned words can be superfluous or can seem patronising. Or am I being unduly harsh?