Edinburgh Festival: Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Thomas Adès (1)

Adès, Beethoven, Sibelius and Stravinsky

Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 13 August 2007 4 stars


The Chamber Orchestra of Europe under the baton of Thomas Adès created a magnificent performance on the fourth night of the Edinburgh International Festival.

Opening the programme was Beethoven's Namensfeier Overture (Op. 115), one of the composer's best but least performed overtures. Taking over five years to write, the work is an attractive showcase of Beethoven's late musical period displaying a striking dynamic structure and a dissonant harmonic technique. The work comprises two distinct sections: a majestic maestoso introduction immediately followed by the Allegro assai vivace.

The opening maestoso begins with a statement of strong, loud orchestral chords before surrendering to a sumptuous cantabile woodwind melody. Technical accuracy seemed second nature to this group: with their attention carefully focused on its majestic character, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe really captured the grand nature of the maestoso introduction.

However, it is the sheer energy with which they tackled the Allegro assai vivace section of this neglected work which impressed most. Beginning in the softest tone, conductor Adès prolonged this whispered dynamic until the sforzando octave chords could no longer be contained. Performing on authentic timpani coupled with exact attention to the dynamic structure, the dissonant sforzando arpeggio figures gave an exciting ending to this excellent underperformed overture.

In contrast to Adès' meticulous interpretation of Beethoven's Namensfeier overture, his baton wavered in the second piece of the program. Guiding the orchestra through the contrasting changes of character in Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite, Adès' overall control and interpretation of tempi was not as strong as one would expect. Faltering slightly in the last Allegro entry before the Gavotta con due variazioni, the orchestra recovered quickly in response to Adès' assertive baton with a dazzling solo from leader Steven Copes.

Musically, though, the orchestra was exceptional and individual solos were excellent. A particular highlight was the Duetto (Vivo) towards the end of the suite which featured a solo double bass (Enno Senft) and trombone (Håkan Bjorkman) duet. The entire double bass section stood on a raised platform which greatly aided the projection of these low instruments. A sympathetic ear to balance from Bjorkman and precise intonation even in the mellow contrasting section of the movement from Senft created an impeccable account of this movement.

However, the opening Sinfonia remained my favourite. Set by Adès at quite a fast tempo, the solo quintet (two violins, viola, cello and double bass) combined with the excellent tutti strings (minus an untidy entry) made a great start to an authoritative performance of the work.

Adès' violin concerto Concentric Paths lies in stark contrast to the rest of the programme. A relatively new work (the British première was held at the 2005 Proms), the twenty-minute piece is an intense virtuosic affair. To date, each performance of the work has featured soloist Anthony Marwood (for whom it was also composed) with Adès conducting - which tells something of the difficulty of the piece.

The first movement, entitled Rings, is also the shortest displaying the extremes of violin registers. Marwood shined through the thickening orchestral texture, creating beautifully high sustained tones which penetrated right through the large concert hall.

By contrast, the second movement, Paths, was the longest, most complex and emotionally challenging. The middle section of the work matured after a build up of intense homophonic chords from the orchestra, with the solo violin soaring above, creating a sublime and beautiful sound. I could only sit back and close my eyes as the exquisite sound of Marwood's violin coupled with low bass tones ended the movement in descending silence. Only occasionally was he overpowered by the orchestra.

Marwood and Adès' collaboration is force of two exceptional talents, and it was an unusual treat to have both the composer and dedicatee performing the work. Their interpretation of the third and final movement, Rounds, had bounds of gusto and was technically tight. Decorating the texture with every orchestral colouring imaginable, the final sforzando ending came as a surprise creating an alarming but deeply satisfying end to the work.

The Chamber Orchestra of Europe's final piece was Sibelius' Symphony No. 3 in C, Op. 52. Fifty years since the death of the Norwegian composer, the Third Symphony is a dense work which requires immense technical concentration. Precise control from Adès created a solid performance, especially in the fast rhythmic passages of the first movement, with his energy leading a spirited performance.

However the highlight for me was the final movement. A restatement of the cello and viola divisi theme from the second movement Andantino emerged beautifully, creating an expectant atmosphere amidst this beautiful rich melody. Interpreting the final passages at a brisk tempo, restless quavers gathered weight as the end of the work was brought down by the force of the brass section.

A stupendous performance from the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, whose collaboration with Adès reinforced their position as of Europe's finest chamber orchestras.

By Mary Robb