London, United Kingdom: Tuesday 25 June 2002
The first British performance for very many years of Raff's Symphony No.5 Lenore sparked modest press and radio coverage because of the efforts of Maureen Cummings to get the work staged. Maureen had raised £2000 by ironing other people's clothes, so determined was she to hear at last a live performance of a work which she has loved since hearing Bernard Herrmann's pioneering LP recording 30 years ago. To the well-heeled Chelsea audience who packed the glorious "Arts and Crafts movement" church of Holy Trinity on this balmy night, Raff no doubt meant nothing - they were happy with the fare of Rossini, Widor and Saint-Saëns.
The full size New Queen's Hall Orchestra is a "scratch" ensemble made up of players from London's leading professional orchestras and it has a reputation for spontaneous and spirited performances in the romantic tradition, using original instruments. Paul Murphy is one of their two guest conductors. After the National Anthem, the first work in the programme was the Overture to Rossini's opera "William Tell". The opening cello quintet was delicately phrased and this set the tone for the whole piece - Murphy didn't treat this as a familiar old warhorse which could be played through without much thought. The storm passage and the closing galop were both exciting without being furious and they benefited for it. The pastoral interlude was nicely controlled and the only drawback was the grand church's acoustic which contrived both to give the strings a thin tone in the quieter passages and to be so congested in louder moments that much of the orchestral detail was lost.
Raff's magnificent symphony formed the bulk of the first half. It was clear from the first bars that Murphy was not taking a measured approach to the work. The Allegro set off at a cracking pace which signaled that his was to be a melodramatic interpretation, heavy on passion and incident. Whilst there was some contrast in tempi, the dynamic variations seemed few (as one lady said at the interval "it was very loud wasn't it?"). This may have been the fault of the church's congested acoustic but much detail in Raff's lovely sound textures was effectively lost. Throughout, though, there was plenty of the momentum so necessary to a Raff opening movement - perhaps too much. Excitement there was but it was arguably at the expense of subtlety. A provocative start.
In contrast, the Andante quasi Larghetto was very nicely and straightforwardly done. It was soaked in poetic feeling and both Murphy and his orchestra demonstrated a sure touch in the beautifully controlled ebb and flow of emotion. Wisely, Raff's direct melodies and superb orchestration were allowed to work their magic without much interpretive interference. The strings in particular were superb. The result was an interlude of serenity between the sturm und drang of the first movement and the pounding March of the third.
This was again taken very fast - Lenore's soldier was maybe joining a cavalry troop? Some scrappy woodwind playing marred the long crescendo which was otherwise effectively maintained. This march being at running pace, the angst-ridden trio illustrating the lovers' parting should have been especially poignant, but it also was played so fast as to be reduced to a mere contrasting episode before the march reasserted itself. A real disappointment. The final few pages, as the soldiers disappeared into the distance, were very effectively carried off however.
Paul Murphy had the measure of the finale. It was taken at just the right sprightly pace - the horses' whinnying being chillingly portrayed. As one fearful episode followed another Murphy faithfully captured Raff's screwing up of the tension through the growing emergence of the thundering of the hooves in the depths of the orchestra. As Lenore's nightmare reached its conclusion, the closing chorale was the heavenly apotheosis it should be. Raff's genius shone through this excellent rendition.
Overall, then, not a bad first attempt from an orchestra and conductor with no Raff tradition. In places the New Queen's Hall players would clearly have benefited from being more familiar with the score but generally they coped well with the unfamiliar music. Paul Murphy erred on the side of speed, no doubt. A more measured approach would not have sacrificed the tension which he was obviously so keen to convey. Eavesdropping on the audience during the interval it was clear that this unknown work had impressed many of them - as it deserved to.
Renowned organist Dame Gillian Wier began the second half with the Allegro Vivace movement from Widor's Symphony No.5 for Organ before joining the orchestra in a very polished performance of Saint-Saëns' Symphony No.3. Once again the difficult acoustic of the church wrought havoc with the details - the piano, for instance, was quite inaudible for most of the time. The famous finale, with all its rodomontade bluster, was played for all it was worth as an exercise in helter-skelter virtuosity under Murphy's acrobatic baton. The audience loved it - let's hope that they will also remember the other (and arguably greater) symphony which they were privileged to hear earlier.