Music: Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra, West Road Concert Hall
Aaron Watts enjoys this tight but safe mixture of Mendelssohn and Beethoven
by Aaron Watts
Monday 7th May 2012, 15:25 BST
Mendelssohn Overture to “A Midsummer Night's Dream”
Beethoven Violin Concerto
Mendelssohn Symphony No.4 'Italian'
This was an exuberant, polished concert; and a far-cry from the orchestra's scorched-earth renditions of Haydn and Mozart under arch-authenticist, Roger Norrington, last November. Two temporal worlds were firmly established in the genial e-major Overture to “A Midsummer Night's Dream” (1827). As with Mendelssohn's own performances, singularised by brisk tempos according to contemporary accounts, this reading was hard-driven but never bombastic. The opening four chords were light and transparent, indeed balm to the ear, and the first theme conjured Oberon's scampering elves. Wind and brass interjections were tight and only occasionally overwhelmed the modest string forces. Indeed, if one criticism were to be levied it would be the absence of a massed sonority generous and rich, especially during the moments of relaxation that brought the overture to a close.
As with the overture, this performance of the Symphony No. 4 (1832-3) emphasised Mendelssohn's brisk and brilliant idiom with aplomb. Writing to his sister, Fanny, from Rome in February 1831, Mendelssohn predicted “the most sportive piece I have yet composed” and this reading was appropriately high-spirited. The ebullient rhythms of its outer movements were buoyant and athletic: the woodwind dialogue after the first exposition in the Allegro vivace was nicely voiced; the triple quaver figuration in the Saltarello was animated, only twice tittering on the brink of collapse. There was some extraordinary playing from the flutes, doubling the melody line in thirds - an influence from Italian opera. It was the second movement, though, a processional Andante con moto, that made most impression: elegant, well-balanced and understated. In a clear nod to the Beethovean shadow cast over German music from the 1820s to (at least) the 1840s, the violas sealed the woodwind timbres tenderly, blending bassoon with oboe.
Beethoven's Violin Concerto (1806), performed by Stephanie Gonley, came between the works by Mendelssohn. Gonley's tone was ravishingly beautiful and her direction (from the front desk) engendered lively partnership from the orchestra. Contrasting tendencies were on display, yet this reading underlined Beethoven's 'new way' commitment to smaller, motivic units. The opening tutti in the Allegro ma non troppo was forthright, gestural. The Larghetto was awash with delightful melodic extension, though the dynamic scale was perhaps less than it might have been. The finale, a dance-like Rondo, had a playful, lilting accent.
My immediate response was to bemoan this uninspired, though certainly intelligent, pairing of Mendelssohn with Beethoven. However, this diligent, enthusiastic programme brought the historical problem of 'monumentalism' after Beethoven to the fore. In the hands of the University Chamber Orchestra, Mendelssohn-as-symphonist came off particularly well indeed. This strikes me as a highly commendable achievement.