Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra

HARRY DADSWELL enjoys a competent CUCO performance, but wishes they could just be a bit more, well, daring.

Beethoven Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra concert review CUCO Disney Fantasia piano concerto Ravel Stravinsky Symphony Tom Poster

In a live performance we listen with our eyes, as well as our ears. The demeanour of the players, even the manner in which they walk onto the stage, enriches our perception of the music they play.

The highly talented players of CUCO, which describes itself as Cambridge’s ‘flagship’ orchestra, are generally relaxed and confident performers. Some have even suggested they are too relaxed, with in-joke smirks and glances exchanged during performances.

Yet in this concert the bearing of the players had changed. There was an air of reservation, especially amongst the string players, a tense concentration rather than the customary swagger. Perhaps this was due to a start-of-year influx of new musicians into an orchestra that has yet to find its collective stride.

Stravinsky’s Four Norwegian Moods, a neo-classical work recycled from an abortive film score, started the evening. The Paris première of this piece met a violently hostile reception, though CUCO were blessed with a more forgiving audience as they made a brave attempt to enliven one of Stravinsky’s more limp offerings.

By contrast Ravel’s Piano Concerto is anything but limp, starting as it does with a whip-crack. In the first movement the orchestra successfully conveyed the contrasting moods of its jaunty and frantic passages as well as the languid jazz-influenced interludes. Of particular note were crisp woodwind and impressive trumpet and harp solos.

In the long and achingly beautiful piano introduction to the second movement, soloist Tom Poster’s restrained approach successfully avoided the temptation of crass sentimentalism. When the orchestra finally entered, eased in by a soaring flute solo, they were playing at their best. An especially magical moment was a sensitive cor anglais restatement of the melody accompanied by delicate fluttering figurations on the piano.

Perhaps lulled by the serene end to the second movement, the orchestra was less impressive in the third. This presto, complete with percussion and spiky trumpet fanfares, should normally be an electric shock to the system. This was prevented by a lack of sufficiently bold strings and defined piano lines. Moreover the second deployment of the whip-crack was a damp squib. Thankfully the orchestra and soloist recovered some of their mojo in time for the guillotine-drop ending.

Beethoven’s programmatic Pastoral Symphony, the work which concluded the concert, was competent and well-rehearsed. The strings were tight for the opening movement, and there were brilliant oboe and horn solos in the barn dance-like third movement.

However, the spectre of string timidity returned for the fourth movement, a depiction of a thunderstorm. Its contrasting mood prevents the symphony from becoming a rather two-dimensional depiction of joyous country life. In the 1940 Disney movie Fantasia, this is the moment when Bacchus’ endless frolicking amongst cupids, fauns and centaurs is interrupted by Zeus, who whips up a storm and hurls thunderbolts from his cloud.

Despite some flamboyant timpani rolls, CUCO failed to achieve the same level of drama. In a relatively small orchestra every string player needs to work hard both to project their sound and to give this passage an ominous mood. Whether it was in the staccato runs and tremolos of the transition, or the violent stab chords and angular tutti passages that followed, the intensity was missing. A knock-on effect of this underwhelming storm was that the intended sense of relief in the final movement, or as Beethoven put it: ‘cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm’, was necessarily less meaningful.

All in all, a competent but at times flat performance from CUCO. This is not owing to a lack of talent, but rather cautiousness when daring is needed. If the strings in particular can learn to lose their inhibitions over the course of the year we can expect great things at future performances.