By a curious coincidence a performance of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus was taking place at the adjacent Barbican Theatre when this English Chamber Orchestra and Julian Rachlin concert opened with the Coriolan Overture (albeit written for Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s play) to begin a Beethoven programme that is set for an European tour.
Coriolan got things off to an appropriately vehement start but it was the quietly tense ending with precisely judged pauses and slow fade-out which lingers most in the mind. One of the problems of performing Beethoven at his most heroic with a relatively small orchestra in a large hall is that there can be a temptation to over-compensate for the lack of personnel by over-projecting, a temptation not wholly resisted here, and for all the commitment there was a slightly ragged quality to some of the brass- and woodwind-playing.
By contrast, the Violin Concerto was wholly satisfying. Tempos throughout were adroitly chosen, forward-moving in the opening movement but also allowing for real character in the more meditative passages and for a genuine Allegro in the Finale with a joyous spring to its heel. The slow movement had searching depth and inwardness. Thankfully, Rachlin stuck to the established cadenzas and his playing had remarkable technical security and also an instinctive sense of Classical style; also a willingness to take risks in varying the speed but without losing the line. The music flowed naturally, the ECO members listening intently and responding to the soloist; there was some thunderous timpani-playing from David Corkhill at climaxes, but never over-dominant, and some elegant duetting from the two bassoonists, Julie Price and Claire Webster, in the Finale.
The Symphony, with a full complement of repeats, was the antithesis of those grandiose statements by some larger groups. Under Rachlin it was lithe, occasionally over forceful (especially from the trumpets) but with the kind of unbridled energy which recalled the excitement of one’s first encounters with this music. The first movement’s 6/8 had a real skip to it, and the ensuing Allegretto was taken at a comparatively relaxed tempo – initially slightly surprising but all became clear as it elided naturally into the contrasting woodwind-led sections where the strings were notably carefully balanced. The Presto Scherzo was absolutely headlong and the Finale, rightly taken attacca, was very much con brio as marked; it could be argued that it was too much of a good thing but Beethoven in manic jig mode is hardly music which repays restraint.