The London Chamber Orchestra has a loyal following, a distinguished body of patrons and can be known to punch above its musical weight. For its second, and well-attended Cadogan Hall concert in the 2012/13 season, its charismatic conductor Christopher Warren-Green showed imaginative programme planning in coupling two of Bach’s Brandenburg concerti with two Russian twentieth century works. If the results were slightly uneven, this took nothing away from some wonderful music making in the course of the evening – with the Shostakovich cello concerto, in a dazzling performance by the young Russian cellist Pavel Gomziakov, being the standout item on the programme.
The LCO played themselves in, without conductor, in a performance of the Third Brandenburg. Rhythms were sprightly, there was a good sense of communication across the stage, but the overall sound, especially from the violins, was slightly unfocused: everyday Bach would be my description. Perhaps a conductor, after all, might have added that slight edge that fine Bach performances have to have?
At all events, the stage was then reset for the full chamber orchestra that Shostakovich’s extraordinary cello concerto of 1959 requires. From the opening bars, and the repeated DSCH motif that litters the work, Gomziakov set out his stall: this was to be a bold, assertive reading of the score, with wonderful, resonant cello tone soaring above the dense orchestral texture that can make the sound world of the lengthy first movement sound somewhat congested. Not so here: under Warren-Green, the LCO sounded like a different orchestra – the strings were solid, warm and focused, the woodwind transparent and the brass richly assertive, with some terrifically incisive playing from the tympani too! Soloist and orchestra listened to each other and constantly adjusted the dynamic of their sound – and Gomziakov gave us vintage solo cello playing.
But just as impressive were the quiet, introvert passages in the three short movements that are run together to make the second movement of the work: in particular the virtuoso cadenza that simply had to be written for the work’s dedicatee (and first performer), Mstislav Rostropovich. Here Gomziakov need not have feared comparison – he absolutely nailed the musical discourse, the series of questions that Shostakovich poses, producing exquisite filigree pianissimo sound at the upper end of the instrument’s range, and earthy, vibrant tone in the lowest register. Orchestra and soloist came together, played off each other and the music making was of top quality throughout. This was a wonderful account of a twentieth century concerto masterpiece – and Gomziakov a cellist to watch.
The coupling after the interval was Bach and Stravinsky. In the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto we had fuller sound, from a larger ensemble than had played the Third, and a trio of soloists – violin and two flutes – who played with sensitivity and flair. If, after the Shostakovich, it all sounded a little bit like standard fare, that is the risk inherent in coupling twentieth and eighteenth century music. But the playing was charming and delightful and the audience loved it.
And so to a sort of synthesis of the evening – the Pulcinella suite. Stravinsky wrote the music for the Ballets Russes in 1920 (he had been lent Coco Chanel’s house near Paris, free of charge, to complete the commission) and drew on themes by Pergolesi and his contemporaries to create a quirky, pastiche world of eminently danceable, modern music. Strong rhythms and contrast are all important in any performance of this suite, and Warren-Green’s players went a long way towards the idiomatic, spiky style that is required. By this stage in the concert they had their audience thoroughly onside anyway – and enjoyment was in the air. So the various orchestral sections spotlighted their gavottes and tarantellas and not even an orchestral mishap in the final minuet could dampen an exuberant end to a thoroughly enjoyable – and at times inspiring – concert. And a Gershwin Lullaby as encore sent the audience on their way in happy mood.