The Chamber Orchestra of Europe's latest concert was an action packed affair. Four main works constituted the main body of the programme but squeezed into this marathon performance was a short overture by Jean-Philippe Rameau entitled Les Indes galantes ('The Elegant Indies').
Falling into the genre of opèra-ballet (where dancing and singing have equal roles), the piece was an unusually short and interesting start to the concert. At less than five minutes long the overture comprises of two main parts (a repeated grand slow introduction and a quick main section). The Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Thomas Adès gave a spirited performance of the piece, celebrating the fast ornamental gestures of Rameau's writing. Performing on modern instruments, the quasi-canonic figure at the start was clear, bright and beautifully articulated.
The second piece in the programme required a change in the layout of the stage. Two ensembles of unusual instrumentation (no trombones or oboes) divided the stage for another short piece, Adès' Three Studies from Couperin. The main musical make-up of these studies was constructed from carefully transcribed movements from Couperin's twenty-seven suites for harpsichord (or Ordres as they are more commonly known).
Maintaining Couperin's original notes, Adès transformed Couperin's rhythms, dynamics and harmony to create a fresh musical style. Colouring the ends of phrases with false harmonics, employing unusual instrumentation (including bass flute and bass marimba), and developing complex interlocking rhythms were just some of the features of this piece which the orchestra immersed themselves in. Lasting only twelve minutes, this new work (première in 2006) received a refreshing performance.
Changing back into the regular orchestral positions, Berlioz's six songs Les nuits de été brought the much anticipated arrival of Toby Spence (interviewed in June) to the concert stage. Intimately familiar with the work, Spence's rich tone conveyed the blissful character of the first and last poems contrasting with the darker middle four. Le Spectre de la Rose ('the ghost of the rose') was by far the best performance. Beginning with an exquisite solo by cellist, William Conway, Spence lived the words as he sang them, himself becoming the envy of the rose. Carefully controlling the level and depth of build up, the inevitable climax displayed the extent of Spence's lavish tone. A lone clarinet concluded the beautifully coherent performance.
However, the real star of the concert was principal oboist Christopher Cowie. Challenging solos in both the remaining two works were excellently negotiated - the famous prominent role for the oboe being in Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin. The Prélude and the Menuet were impeccable both musically and soloistically. Originally created by Ravel for piano, Adès' interpretation of the piece was robust, bringing out the finer nuances of Ravel's writing. The orchestra did not buckle but flourished under Adès' fast tempi, while Cowie stole the show with his haunting sustained melodic lines.
The final work in the programme had eluded the public for eighty years until its discovery in 1935 by the biographer D. C. Parker. Completed in two months by the seventeen-year-old Bizet, his Symphony in C has been criticised for its close correlation to that of Gounod's First Symphony. It is a dense work with a highly dramatic and virtuosic first movement. Acknowledging the repetition of the first half of the opening movement gave the audience a second chance to hear the beautiful (but somewhat incomplete) second subject oboe solo from Cowie.
A classic canonic figure beginning in the cello section and moving right through the strings to the first violins set up the concluding phrases of the oboe solo in the second movement. This time soaring above the orchestra, Cowie's excellent phrasing of the high sustained melody led to the end of the movement brought off by a pianissimo pizzicato.
Bizet's final movement provided a virtuosic display of technical talent from Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Adès' direction of the orchestra allowed their best playing to come through. Sensitive dynamic control created an expectant atmosphere which rocketed through to the finale.
This brilliant ending captured the extent of the strong artistic bond between Adès and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.
By Mary Robb
The concert was recorded for Radio 3 and will be broadcast on 10 September.