Southbank Sinfonia at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London: 29/3/11

Family, friends, individual supporters, the corporate sponsors of EFG Private Bank: they packed out much of the Queen Elizabeth Hall for this latest manifestation of the Southbank Sinfonia, the orchestra that annually takes on and encourages 32 new graduate instrumentalists just out of college. Without public funding, too.

The organisation’s buccaneering spirit only seems to add extra punch to its music-making. On Tuesday night the force of the opening bars of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for strings would have been enough to topple Big Ben. Augmented with the Sacconi Quartet, the players surged forward with passion, the tone gloriously full-blooded. It obviously helped having Vladimir Ashkenazy, one of the Sinfonia’s Patrons, at the podium: is there any conductor who radiates more joy in an orchestra’s musical fellowship?

His love of British music was equally apparent. Though Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony is a masterpiece, it’s not a regular concert visitor. Ashkenazy and his spirited players persuasively showed what we’re missing: a compelling symphony of peace and war, with spiritual ease only attained by acknowledging and transforming the world’s brute forces. The Sinfonia’s playing wasn’t always characterised by finesse, but the two splendid horn players never failed when calling to the distant horizon. Gorgeous pianissimos, superb breath control; I could have listened to them all day.

Rhythmic accenting could also have been sharper from time to time, certainly in the scherzo. But local weaknesses never loosened Ashkenazy’s grip on the symphony’s kaleidoscope, or the performance’s intensity. Slow became fast in the Sibelius way, inch by surprising inch; devils capered; pastoral harmonies buckled with pain, then gradually unbended. We weren’t just listening to music here; we were partners with the orchestra and composer in a powerful spiritual quest.

That sense of something beyond the notes went missing in Schumann’s Cello Concerto, performed with Raphael Wallfisch. Yet if Wallfisch’s fingers underplayed the poetry, his breezy energy at least made an excellent match with the Sinfonia’s gung-ho approach. If this year’s Sinfonia intake can maintain their impact in their adult careers, British orchestral playing in the future is not going to be short of fire and muscle.

Geoff Brown (The Times)

Duo Figaro at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge: 29/10/10

“[...] Duo Figaro consists of violinist Lucia D’Avanzo and violist Peter Mallinson, who played a rare Duo by one Johann Wenzel Kalliwoda. No, I hadn’t heard of him either, but his four-movement piece proved a worthwhile trip down an unusual musical by-way [...] it was tuneful, easy on the ear, and cleverly written for the two instruments. Lucia and Peter gave it a really persuasive performance, working as a team, emphasising melodies, keeping accompaniments in the background, and producing a mellow, glowing sound. [...]”

Joe Conway (The Cambridge Tab)

Orchestra Europa at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London: 11/3/10

What do you expect from an orchestra of musicians in their early twenties? The aspects of youth, I’d say: hope and joy; passion, excitement; even reckless abandon. The British-based Orchestra Europa, founded four years ago to bridge the gap between the college years and the start of a professional career with concerts and further training, offers all these accoutrements and more.

At 27, its conductor and instigator Scott Ellaway is not hugely older than those at the other end of his little baton — first seen swirling round in Smetana’s Bartered Bride overture. At the moment unusual programming isn’t the organisation’s forte: the bill continued with Tchaikovksy’s First Piano Concerto and the usual swag bag from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet. Yet there was nothing dutiful in the way these gifted musicians from Britain’s music colleges bent to their task. The sound was bright, well- balanced and definitely hot-blooded.

The concert’s one uninterested party appeared to be the Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov. He looked at his Steinway like a bank clerk facing Monday morning. Professional sheen? There in plenty in the Tchaikovsky, along with some thumping finger power. But little sign of love; no individual inflections of phrases or rhythms. Happily, the orchestra surged and swooned as if the piece was newly composed. Instrumental beauties leapt out of Romeo and Juliet: a plangent cello here, bold brass there. One might wish for less broad-brushed interpretation from Ellaway, one with lighter textures savoured in between Prokofiev’s grand slams, and a sharper nose for dance rhythms. Better overenthusiasm, though, than an orchestra and conductor sleepwalking towards doom.

Geoff Brown (The Times)

Royal Academy of Music Baroque Orchestra at Jack Lyons Theatre (Handel Semele): 16/11/09

“A memorable experience to cherish… The orchestra sounded more authentic than a professional baroque opera orchestra I heard a few weeks ago. Sir Charles Mackerras and the Royal Academy of Music triumphed.”