Listening to the English Chamber Orchestra under the baton of José Serebrier perform an all-Tchaikovsky programme last night in the National Concert Hall was, to borrow a phrase from Brideshead Revisited, like drowning in honey. Lush, heartfelt swathes of Russian, romantic melodies delivered in the melting-chocolate tones of the ECO made for a delightfully indulgent evening. The addition of star cellist Natalie Clein just added to the sumptuous gorgeousness of this music-making feast. 

José Serebrier
© Clive Barda

I was struck in particular by two things. Firstly, given the ECO's small forces, everyone communicated with one another both instantly and instinctively. The last desks were as engaged as the first, alert to each other’s lines. Secondly, their sound collectively has to be heard to be believed; quite simply, it ravished the ear.

The first two pieces, the Andante cantible and None but the Lonely Heart were transcribed by Serebrier himself. The first is the second movement from Tchaikovsky’s First String Quartet and has become one of his most beloved compositions. It was exquisitely played by the orchestra, phrasing as one. Serebrier imbued the folksong melody with real pathos. In the programme notes, he explained how he had “tried to make theses transcriptions sound as if they had been orchestrated by the composer himself”. The second piece, which is based upon one of Tchaikovsky’s infrequently heard songs, might have been penned by the man himself. The principal cellist opened the piece with luxuriant, singing lyricism.

The well-known Elegy possessed a lilting beauty that was tinged with sadness. Serebrier and the orchestra made it touching in its simplicity, encasing it in their poised, suave, sophisticated sound.

Just before the interval, Natalie Clein performed the Variations on a Rococo Theme. Pouring her heart and soul into the music, Clein wooed us all with her elegance of phrase and beauty of tone. She projected her line with ease over the ECO, oozing confidence and musicality while nailing the intonation of the high notes with laser-like accuracy. At times, Clein indulged in whimsical flourishes and coquettish dialogues with the orchestra, at other times, as in her cadenza, she dispatched her virtuoso moments with bravura. In the lively final Allegro vivo variation, she attacked with vim and vigour, energy rippling through the small orchestra and beyond. It was a performance of effortless virtuosity, deep musicianship and sensitive partnership.

The ever-popular Serenade for Strings was up after the break. Serebrier led a flowing passionate account of the first movement, using the gradation of dynamics to great effect. He made sure to synchronise the perpetuo moto perfectly, evident enjoyment evinced by all the players. Serebrier’s deft touches made for a suave, elegant rendition of the second movement. The ECO breathed out their pianissimo in the Élégie while both humour and excitement characterised the maestro’s approach to the finale.

Serebrier had a generous amount of encores up his sleeve. We had charming renditions of Bach’s Air from Suite no. 3, Rossini’s overture to Il Signor Bruschino, a smoky Oblivion by Piazzolla and a delightfully whimsical Jazz Pizzicato by Leroy Anderson, leaving the audience clamouring for more.