CUCO concert

SASHA MILLWOOD and ANTHONY FRIEND are reminded of the exceptional quality that can be attained by Cambridge’s elite student musicians.

CUCO peter stark West Road Concert Hall

8pm, 5th March, West Road Concert Hall

Peter Stark conducts Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra


Themed concerts seem to have become a vogue for the Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra. In Michaelmas term, their two concerts focussed on Beethoven and then Brahms. Such an approach has elicited highly opinionated, and often unjustified, ranting from detractors. Still, it was pleasing to see a somewhat broader programme in this concert, but nicely unified by the French nationality of the three composers.

The first item, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was executed with great charm and sensitivity. The numerous, characterful solos were played with aplomb, making the most of the genius of Ravel’s orchestration. In the second movement, the interplay between the violin, piccolo and flute solos was so seamless as to give the impression that they were all a single flowing voice.

Despite the quality and care of their execution, many of the solos were unfortunately lost in the background texture. Yet the mature sound Peter Stark elicited CUCO’s string section compensated for this loss of clarity. With only a few desks’ worth of players, Peter Stark managed to achieve a blended, unified texture. Supported by a strong celeste player, and by really exceptional harp playing, CUCO were able to draw out the depth of Ravel’s writing.

We were informed that Lydia Scadding, the scheduled soloist for Franck’s Symphonic Variations, had hurt her left hand. This was an understatement: reliable sources tell me it had been trapped by a closing car door! Given the short notice, it was impressive that not only was a substitute sourced, but he had memorised the piece. Edward Liddall’s confident and secure performance betrayed little of the strained circumstances, although in places it was rather mechanical, and, understandably, the rapport between soloist and orchestra seemed a little icy and detached.

The constant dynamic swell of Franck’s score and the endless chromaticism suggest melodrama and exaggeration, but we got understatement and strict tempo, despite Stark’s visible efforts to pull the tempi around and explore the expressive potential of the work. Despite the difficult circumstances that led to this muted performance, the emotional capacity of the orchestra was affirmed in their sublime performance of Ravel’s Pavane pour une Infante défunte. The horn solos in particular were expressive and individual, whilst perfectly integrated into the orchestral texture. The occasional cracked note did not detract from the beauty of the line. Tempo and intensity were expertly paced so as to capture the intimate and naïve character of the piece, whilst ensuring that its repetitiveness did not become irritating.

The final work in the programme, Poulenc’s Sinfonietta, formed an ideal contrast; the orchestra effectively portraying the composer’s unique sense of humour: Poulenc often strikes a balance between camp frivolity and self-conscious melancholy in his music, and CUCO managed this diversity effectively.

The tempo changes were smoothly navigated, and the unity never flagged. The more expressive elements successfully balanced the occasionally excessive gaiety of the Sinfonietta’s more upbeat moments. The climaxes, however, were rather restrained in intensity and volume, rendering the piece slightly homogenous. They could have been more bombastic and resplendent, especially in the last movement.

CUCO concerts are always a reminder of the exceptional quality that can be attained by the elite student musicians; and, as student orchestras go in Cambridge, their unity, discipline and musicality are unsurpassed. It is no wonder that they can attract internationally renowned figures, and thrive under them as they did under Peter Stark.