The English Chamber Orchestra’s series of Teatime Music concerts, recorded in the impressive surroundings of Beckenham Place Mansion in south east London, are already almost at an end. Their penultimate offering was a spirited performance of Mendelssohn’s joyous Octet, with an appetiser of Borodin’s incomplete String Sextet.

© English Chamber Orchestra
© English Chamber Orchestra

The concerts were pre-recorded for streaming broadcast as a series over the last few weeks. We are all getting used to this new world of streamed concerts – what to expect, getting the tech right, and what makes for an enjoyable ‘concert’ experience when viewing online, and whilst these were strong performances, the overall package could be improved. Here, there was no preamble or introduction, and the stream began, on the dot, diving straight into the Borodin. Similarly, there was no significant break or introduction, just a brief cut away, before the players (expanded to eight) launched into the Mendelssohn. Camera shots were of limited variety, presumably space being a constraint, and with limited interaction between players, and no interaction with the cameras at the beginning or end, it felt like observing a rehearsal rather than a concert performance. Concert notes accessible via the website were also brief, with no performers listed – other groups have offered pdf programmes, for example, which again add to the sense of a concert occasion. 

The acoustic in the lofty Georgian space was understandably fulsome, particularly without any audience, and in places this did get in the way of detail, but on the other hand, the string players’ warm tones were given extra resonance as a result. 

Borodin’s String Sextet dates from 1860, and he only managed to complete two movements. Pleasantly tuneful, both focus the melodic interest largely between the first violin and first cello, and the opening movement is lively and sprightly, whilst the second is full of folk-like melodies, with simple accompaniment. Both movements subside to gentle conclusions – so nothing to set the world alight. The players here gave a warm performance, although that limited eye contact between players didn’t communicate huge commitment to this light opener.

Energy levels lifted for the Mendelssohn. They went for a steady tempo for the first movement – it is Allegro moderato after all – but con fuoco required a little more fire in their bellies. This grew through the movement, and the syncopated build to climax before the repeat really got things going. By the end of the movement, their unison runs into the recapitulation had real energy and tight ensemble, although the echoey acoustic affected the balance slightly at the finish. That acoustic meant for an unsteady start to the second movement, with greater clarity of tempo needed in the lower instruments. However, once up and running, they brought out the darker and more passionate moments here well, with some fine lyricism and determined insistence in the repeated triplet figurations. Mendelssohn’s proto-Midsummer Night’s Dream Scherzo had a light touch, taken at an energetic lick. The players enjoyed the playful, skittering interjections, and the concluding throwaway unison had great precision. Once again the acoustic got in the way a little in the very fast runs in the lower instruments at the start of the finale, but otherwise this was a blistering delivery. The angular quotation from Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus (“And he shall reign…”) was passed from player to player with emphatic certainty, and here at last the group’s enthusiasm was evident, building to the movement’s glorious climax and a joyous flourish to finish. 


This performance was reviewed from the ECO's video stream.

***11