Southbank Sinfonia was formed in 2002 and comprises young professional musicians at the beginning of their careers. Its free rush-hour concerts given at nearby St John’s, Waterloo have endeared SS to commuting music-lovers.
Despite the impermanent nature of personnel, the performances under Gábor Takács-Nagy matched the standard of professional chamber orchestras of similar size. Appropriately, the conductor introduced each work with a friendly spoken analysis; I felt that this typified his commitment to the music. Upper strings played while standing; I do not know whether this was their choice or that of Takács-Nagy; perhaps it gives them additional freedom of movement.
Mozart’s Symphony 32 was given a crisp, driving reading with precise forte chords and forceful rhythmic thrust; the musicians responded eagerly and the central Andante was phrased with great sensitivity. For Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances it is hard to imagine a more vivid performance. The rhythms were stressed and sometimes delightfully exaggerated to exciting effect – Takács-Nagy said that when conducting this piece he has difficulty keeping himself from dancing. His delight in the music was confirmed when the final Dance provided a brilliant encore.
Haydn subtitled one of his Masses “Sunt bona mixta malis” and that term is a good description of Takács-Nagy’s performance of Symphony 90. The playing was admirable and the horns (Joel Roberts and Máté Tözser) were outstanding when performing their demanding parts pitched in c-alto. The first movement’s dashing Allegro assai was notable for its exhilarating rhythmic thrust. Themes were sometimes decorated when restated and the flute-led second subject was refashioned, not just on the repeat but also at its final restatement. An annoying outburst of clapping delayed the start of the Andante, notable for the elegant shaping of its charming melody. Being a variation movement Haydn re-orchestrates the theme on each appearance but here the tendency for the woodwinds to embellish became troublesome and sometimes Haydn’s own decorations were decorated further. A brisk, dancing Minuet followed, to be succeeded by a disastrous Finale.
Nothing wrong with the very swift tempo, accomplished with admirable accuracy, but the audience’s misbehaviour after the first movement was minor compared with its applause during the movement at the point where, after some firm chords, four bars rest precede the quiet return of the main theme. Clapping during the rests ruined Haydn’s subtle surprise and made the violins enter late. Worse still, the conductor was culpable during the repeat by grossly slowing the tempo before the pause (the musical equivalent of ‘nudge nudge’) and the audience still failed to comprehend that it had made a mistake earlier and again applauded before the next orchestral entry.
All this silliness was forgotten when it came to Beethoven’s Second Symphony. Tempos were faster than is convectional with a refreshing swift flow given to the Larghetto. The modest number of strings made a strong impact in their dramatic, whirling phrases in the codas of the outer movements, and strongly marked dynamic contrasts and chording gave ideal brightness and clarity. As performed here this was young Beethoven in a fierily dramatic mood. There have been many convincing performances from established chamber orchestras – this was equal to any of them.