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Sinfonietta: Saint-Saëns, Sibelius and Elgar

Mar 20 2008 09:48
Ralph Beeby
4th March saw the return of Sinfonietta to the Great Hall.
Sinfonietta performing En Saga at ArtsFest 08 (Photography: Chris Chan)

On 4th March Conductor Daniel Capps bought Sinfonietta back to the Great Hall for a performance of two lesser-known pieces ? Saint-Saëns? Danse Bacchanale and Sibelius En Saga - and one famous crowd-pleaser, Elgar?s Enigma Variations.

The Danse Bacchanale, an excerpt from Samson and Delilah, provided a sinister opening to the evening. Arabic-sounding motifs floated over a tense, energetic introduction, building to a climax that showed impressive restraint on the part of the conductor ? what greater peak was he building up to?

This question posed, the music slipped into warm, dreamlike passages, until finally, almost in answer, these gentle sounds swelled to an even more dramatic climax than the first. A brief silence followed before the bass drum kicked in with a driving rhythm, whilst sensual, swirling melodies bought this piece to its conclusion.

The Sibelius bought a dark, macabre air to the room. A brooding opening gave way to squeaky arpeggios on the strings, backed up by swelling percussion, providing the support for haunting melodies from the other sections.

After this hallucinogenic start came some light relief, with rolling strings and reassuring brass phrases. However, before long, the piece descended into a catatonic swirl of scratchy strings. Amidst this apparent chaos, the orchestra seemed still to be calm and focussed as the music bubbled to a climax.

Yet this was not the end; a false summit on the mountain of the composer?s tortured consciousness. The orchestra faded gently into a familiar brass melody, before the woodwind heralded another energetic stretch, clutching at something brighter with more optimistic melodies. Eventually, this ray of light was blacked out by a final, furious climax. The cymbals faded to leave a plaintiff clarinet riding over jittering strings, and the basses took over for a dark and lonely coda. The clarinettist in question deserves particular mention for his superb performance in this piece.

The Enigma was excellent, though of particular note was the third movement. The opening was gentle and soothing, the woodwind playful against the measured maturity of the strings. (The mistakes in the oboe solo were a real shame.) The piece developed into a majestic landscape of sound, so very English, evocative of an idyllic Kentish countryside. A beautiful, soaring climax was superbly delivered.

Also notable was the last movement. It created a dark, cloudy atmosphere with the cellos, over a cold, rocky outcrop of double bass. The violins and violas provided gathering winds until a clarinet could be heard calling over this storm of strings. As it reached a head, the dense music broke into warmth and light ? the eye of the storm ? before dropping to a lonely clarinet over melancholic strings.

And finally, a regal, triumphant coda. The brass were in danger of overpowering the strings, but the orchestra remained very tight, in spite of the constantly changing tempo. If there is any criticism to be made, it is perhaps that the organ was too quiet throughout. Whilst its final, shimmering chord could be heard at the end, it was inaudible throughout most of this suite.

Sinfonietta provided an evening of beautiful, exciting and colourful music. This varied selection would surely have found something to match all tastes, and all three pieces were delivered to an incredibly high standard. The gentleman sat next to me remarked that this was the best rendition of Elgar?s Enigma Variations he had ever heard. I can believe that.

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