| Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford
Craig Ogden and Oxford Philomusica
|Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, Oxford OX1 3AZ, United Kingdom|
Thursday 1-Mar-12 08:00pm
Craig Ogden and Oxford Philomusica
Conductor Daniel Cohen makes his Philomusica debut in an intriguingly eclectic programme. First Berlioz, then a wonderfully colourful Spanish pairing of Falla and Rodrigo – when the brilliant young guitarist Craig Ogden takes centre stage with the evocative Concierto de Aranjuez – concluding with Mozart’s affable ‘Haffner’.
It seems unfair to label a young conductor a 'discovery', especially since most young conductors labour tirelessly for many years prior to achieving wider recognition. But that's what Daniel Cohen was for me: a discovery, and a very pleasing one at that. On Thursday evening he made an extremely assured debut with Oxford Philomusica, bringing energy and understanding to each of the rather disparate works played.
The reasons for the slightly incoherent succession of pieces were not apparent, though all of them received fine performances. The Romantic stylings of Berlioz, followed by even more lushly colourful works by Falla and Rodrigo, seemed to be leading towards a concluding item capping the general theme of post-Romantic Spaniards – but instead we had Mozart's 'Haffner' Symphony. Nevertheless, there was something distinctive to be found in each, taken on their own terms.
Berlioz's Rêverie et caprice, doing little to disguise its origins as a operatic cavatina, was delivered by the orchestra's leader, Natalia Lomeiko, with warm tone and a characterful lower register. Despite the composer's typically indulgent and descriptive programme note, it came across more as elegant virtuosity than deeply searching journey-of-the-heart – which is not to knock Lomeiko's spot-on intonation and creamy tone, even in the trickier double-stops.
This led us into the colourful world of Manuel de Falla's ballet suite, El amor brujo. Premièred in its first incarnation in 1915, it is in some ways a Spanish-flavoured response to Stravinsky's game-changing Rite of Spring of two years before. Its name translating as 'Love, the Magician', the tale of an unquiet spirit provided de Falla with plentiful opportunities for exciting contrast and colourful instrumentation. Cohen and the orchestra revelled in it, and balanced moments of bombast like the 'Dance of Terror' with a wonderfully muted, silvery sound in 'The Magic Circle'. Conceived as a gitaneria or gypsy entertainment, it originally featured dancing and singing from gypsy performers. In this concert version, mezzo-soprano Diana Moore took on the gypsy songs. She possesses a rich, dark-hued voice, and although she was occasionally overpowered by the orchestral accompaniment, she was effective in the later songs. It would have been nice to know what she was singing – strangely the programme did not include translations, despite finding room to print Berlioz's complete notes for the 8-minute overture.
Guitarist Craig Ogden brought warmth of personality and technical ease to Rodrigo's popular Concierto de Aranjuez. Now, I'm not intimately familiar with the politics of amplifying the guitar in a concert situation, but I wondered whether Ogden's amplication unit was entirely necessary; the Sheldonian is not an enormous venue and the orchestra was not large. We lost a degree of intimacy, and the warm, complex tones of the unamplified guitar were rendered a little tinny, and uncomfortably 'close' in the Adagio. The account was distinguished, though, and there was a fine interplay between soloist and orchestra, not to mention a beautiful cor anglais solo in the second movement. (Dispiritingly, it needs to be mentioned here that the author of the programme notes seems to have lifted the entire section on Rodrigo from another source, quite uncredited.)
Cohen conducted throughout with the golden combination of clarity and expression, drawing phrasing and contrast out from the responsive orchestra. When we reached the Mozart, jarring as it was after what had come before, it had all the requisite 'fire' of the composer's explicit demands, and the conductor's energy never flagged. He was consistently an extremely watchable presence on the podium. A few slips in ensemble aside, it was a lively account, warmly received. Cohen deserves to go far.