“It’s so much more than ‘hot-cross buns’” (referring to the provenance of the Finale’s first subject), remarked guest conductor John Morris Russell to the audience just prior to delving into the master composer’s no-note-without-purpose 104th symphony. Quite so.
From the very first measure, with the indicated fermata as ignored as its dramatic implication was lost (what mode are we in?), it was immediately apparent that this performance, like the Covent Garden hawkers’ calls, was going to be decidedly common, even as sudden appetites were appeased with simple fare.
Once the Allegro-proper was launched, sunnily—like much of the program—ensconced in the key of D Major, the unfathomed harmonic implications of the introduction were soon overshadowed by weightless leading tones and chords of the augmented sixth that were punctually played but whose underlying tension was left for another day. The likes of George Szell and Karl Böhm would be felt turning in their authoritarian graves, both still wondering when another maestro will be willing and able to read between the staves.
Adding insult to injury, the dean of symphonic comic-irony’s (very occasionally vulgar, witness Symphony No. 92’s bassoon ejaculation in the “slow” movement; more often the extra-dry wit of genius: for example, employing empty bars as modulation pivot chords) sudden silences and harmonic shifts sailed obliviously on their way without the intended payoffs tickling any intellectual funny bones.
The sublime “Andante” was notable for French horns too loud only to have their well-worn embouchures lose constancy in the closing adieu—unstopped or not. Happily, Rebecca Norman’s bassoon interventions were a constant, colourful pleasure: here’s to more from her in the future.
The “Menuetto” was certainly pleasant enough and the oboes largely shone in the two-flat trio, yet the magical return was long on legato if short on mystery.
The famous closer was nothing if not “Spiritoso” even as Morris’ rugged, choppy beats encouraged the attentive band towards the brutal abyss that mature Beethoven needs and demands, missing the many moments of unabashed celebration of art that a lighter touch might have revealed. By journey’s end, these buns were far beyond their best-before-date, lacking the especially leavening ingredients of happiness and joy.
All that came before this “London” was much more satisfying.
Without doubt, the highlight of the first half was Christie Goodwin’s sensitive, secure performance of Vaughan Williams’ melodically-rich essay for oboe and strings. Once the few opening jitters of the “Rondo Pastorale” were banished to the wings, soloist and conductor fit together like the proverbial glove even as the accompanists followed suit. How fortunate the orchestra is to have such a gifted first-chair player on the roster.
On either side of the dominant (A minor, in this case) were a pair of Sinfonias. The Boyce had a spritely, festive air but just a touch too much tympani (also the case in the drum for the second serving of T. Patrick Carrabré’s Chase the Sun which Morris presented in a lean, snappy style); sitting on the far left aisle may have accounted for this balance anomaly—yet another reason to count the days to the new concert hall. J.C. Bach’s three movements showed the strings off at a new level of confidence, demonstrating once more how this type of repertoire allows the orchestra to shine much brighter than the larger Romantic works that, necessarily, can never be properly balanced.
Russell clearly has the ability to draw many fine sounds from the players, digging deeper into the style and subtleties of the selected works can only improve the experience for all. JWR