Strauss: Horn Concerto No. 1, Beethoven: Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus & Symphony No. 7
CUMS II don’t cut the mustard for AARON WATTS.
West Road Concert Hall, Wednesday 14th March, £3/£8/£10
I wouldn’t have put money on Strauss’s first horn concerto being the better part of tonight’s concert.
It indulged the reactionary tastes of his anti-Semitic bully-boy father, Franz, before he summoned the courage to carve out his own aesthetic. However, Stephen Craigen was an outstanding soloist, clearly on familiar territory, if a little complacent in parts (un-ironed black shirt etc). He sustained a rich and vigorous tone, never failing apart from inthe feeble opening motif, a daft arpeggio that could have been lifted from any bog-standard 18th Century work, and on that charge alone probably deserves nothing more.
Sadly, however, CUMS II was not the bedrock of support such effortless ability deserves. It would be unfair to lay the entire complaint on conductor Nia Llewelyn Jones, but she must bear a sizeable burden. Her gestures might have looked good in the mirror, accompanied by a CD player, but unfortunately all were largely unhelpful.
We witnessed the ‘shovel’, where the baton stabbed so low the downbeat was missed by all but the front-desk cellist adjusting her spike; the ‘bat-wings’, which might have created a nice visual metaphor for CUMS’ lack of sonic clarity were she wearing a more floaty jacket; the ‘outstretched arms’, which elicited neither a bang nor a whimper from the winds during the final movement; and what could be described, kindly, as the ‘missed beat’. Jones was not on top of her score.
This brings us to the more challenging but shabbily-performed works by Beethoven: the Prometheus Overture and the Seventh Symphony. Taking a step back, it would be churlish not to mention three highly commendable contributions these works. First, the pairing of flutes that, besides negotiating the fiendishly difficult transition to what Berlioz termed the ‘Ronde de Paysan’, was animated and responsive. Secondly, the sole trumpet player who made his way, unabashedly, through a tricky repertoire. And thirdly, the finely-drawn principal double bass player: a solid anchor and alluring presence throughout (can someone write him a concerto?).
The Prometheus Overture isn’t highly satisfying in itself. The opening two chords, in this rendition, were further impeded by an indeterminate third. The main theme was also far too brisk – had Jones been listening to too many ‘historically-informed’ recordings in preparation? There were pleasing pockets, though, and a searingly dramatic climax – with a belatedly enlivened timpanist and energetic upper strings – made for a rousing close.
By any estimation the Seventh Symphony is a problematic work. With its hum-along second movement, the standalone Allegretto, and a notoriously unfitting Allegro con brio finish, it requires a unifying idea in order to make any sense as a whole. It’s difficult to know where to start, but consistent tempi and a much surer sense of texture and dynamic balance would have helped. The huge, unprecedented introduction to the first movement needed more shaping; the second idea in the second movement, introduced by the cellos, was drowned out. The screaming horn writing in the final movement was barely audible.
There was much enthusiasm on display throughout the evening. The ambitious programme alone warrants applause. Regrettably, though, under Nia Llewelyn Jones’s tutelage, the orchestra was much less than the sum of its parts.