wed 22/11/2017

Ibragimova, Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, Gardner, Mansion House | reviews, news & interviews

Ibragimova, Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, Gardner, Mansion House

Ibragimova, Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, Gardner, Mansion House

A Mendelssohn concerto and fruity sounds, but Tansy Davies' bees disappoint

Credit: Sussie Alhlburg

For the general public, getting to see the Mansion House in the City of London is almost as easy a task as becoming a dentist who specialises in hen’s teeth. But that was not the only reason for coming along to last night’s Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s concert conducted by Edward Gardner. For this City of London Festival programme contained a most teasing prospect. Alina Ibragimova, the most questing and lively young violinist of our time, was actually going to play a repertoire concerto.

Left to her own devices, this 26-year-old firecracker would probably be happier unleashing a chunky and esoteric sweetmeat from the pioneering Russian modernist Nikolai Roslavetz – she’s recorded him on CD – or at least some rigorous solo Bartók. But here, within the column-lined splendour of the Mansion House’s Egyptian Hall, Ibragimova for once played traditional and safe, and gave us the Mendelssohn concerto. Not that she took the occasion to relax. In the opening bars, her knitted brows supplied an apt physical parallel to what we were hearing: a hot, lyrical but worried line, tense with forward motion, driving onwards without breath.The Mansion House acoustic may be fine for annual speeches from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but it is not a solo violin’s friend. Even so, within the muffled sound environment she still managed a wide-ranging kaleidoscope: filigree whispers before the first movement’s second theme; forthright projection for the cadenza; humble simplicity in the andante.

Maybe Ibragimova just wanted to get the concerto finishedOn balance, the acoustic interfered with the orchestra rather more. Here and in this Mendelssohn-themed concert’s final item, his Symphony No 4, the Italian, passages requiring the composer’s signature fairy chatter too often became a blur. We also suffered in the concerto’s finale from a mismatch between orchestra and soloist, which Gardner, for all his alert gestures, seemed powerless to prevent. Mercurial arabesques flew from Ibragimova’s fingers, with the orchestra always a fraction behind, panting to keep up like PC Plod. Maybe Ibragimova just wanted to get the concerto finished, for there were certainly signs here and there of a lack of interest in what Mendelssohn had to offer. Most violinists pounce on the finale’s playful opening arpeggios as a chance to wink and scintillate. Ibragimova left them uninflected. "Boring, boring," she seemed to be saying; "Now, where’s my Roslavetz?"

Another usually livewire talent also appeared a little out of sorts in this concert. British composer Tansy Davies, spunky and stylish, is someone who can be generally relied upon to get the foot tapping and clean out the ears. Not here. Her offering, a Festival commission, was the 12-minute Delphic Bee, inspired both by the Delphic oracles of ancient Greece and the Festival’s bio-diversity drive (did you know there’s a beehive on the Mansion House roof?). I’m not sure if Davies read the article two weeks ago in the London Evening Standard headed "Celebrity Beekeepers Told to Buzz Off", warning that beekeeping in London was getting too popular for the available supplies of nectar and pollen. Too late, in any case: by then the piece had already been composed.

Scored for nine wind instruments, and definitely light on pastoral burbling, Delphic Bee would have made a stronger impression if its buzzings and ponderings had been structured as a unified whole, not a dry little suite in four movements. Rhythmically, Davies’ games were spirited enough, if audibly reminiscent of Stravinsky. But the colours were drab; the section marked ‘Solemn’ proved only lugubrious; and, saddest of all, I never felt any driving reason for the work to exist.

The Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment’s winds did what they could to make the bees nicer, though their period instruments had better chances to brighten our lives in the 19th-century selections. Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers overture had its succulent rainbow moments; but the richest and most idiosyncratic hues appeared in the Italian symphony, with fruitily eloquent (and pitch-perfect) horns, and interestingly dark, breathy flutes leading us into the finale. So, a curate’s egg kind of night. But I did enjoy the Egyptian Hall, especially Frederick Thrupp’s statue of Timon of Athens in the far corner niche. He has a most remarkable left knee.

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