22 August, 2009

Festival Blogger review - Orchestre des Champs-Élysées - 17/8/09

Image: Orchestre des Champs-Élysées. Photo: Jean-Phillippe Baltel

The Usher Hall seemed like a huge venue for such a tiny orchestra, but what they lacked in sheer numbers and volume they made up for with the intensity and emotion of their playing. As the clear opening notes from the flute in Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Overture sang across the silent space, I was enchanted – as, I believe, were the rest of the audience, packed in to this sell-out concert.

From the delicate shimmering of the violins, representing the fairies’ footsteps, to the loud sarcastic braying of Bottom the weaver, the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, conducted by Philippe Herreweghe, captured a perfect contrast of sentiments. Played on original instruments – including the ophicleide, a large brass bass instrument, staple to the Romantic orchestra but nowadays near extinct – there was a definite emphasis on authenticity, though as a result there was a slight lack of the familiar warmth and tone of some modern instruments, and the frugal use of vibrato made for a very distinctive string sound.

The piano, also distinctly lacking in the tone quality and sustain of a modern instrument, did not affect soloist Alexander Lonquich’s lyrical and expressive playing of Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 2. He too captured the audience with his intensity, his hands flying from the keys with each virtuosic flourish, and his flawless timing and precision creating suspense and poise at the most emotional corners. Here the orchestra showed their strength as a backdrop, providing perfect support for Chopin’s elegant keyboard writing to shine.

It was Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony that gave the orchestra an opportunity to show the full extent of their range of colour – the sensitive pianissimos and pizzicato strings, the great stirring emotions of the Adagio, and finally the buzzing anger of the finale, formed a powerfully moving performance. Not only were the soloists excellent – the luxuriously smooth clarinet melody floated above the orchestra at the beginning of the second movement – but the unity and ensemble was impressive; the first entry of the violins sounded like one pure voice, and the physical movement of the whole orchestra was completely together, breathing with the music. With encores from both the soloist and the orchestra, it was beautifully moving performance.
Reviewer: Joanna Ramasawmy

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