The Southbank Sinfonia regenerates itself every year; the orchestra is comprised of the brightest young graduates, mainly from the UK’s music colleges. On Wednesday night’s concert, they were appearing under the baton of esteemed pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy in a programme of staples from the late-Romantic orchestral repertoire. Understandably, the Sinfonia markets itself as a young, fresh ensemble and my expectation was for a concert brimming with a dynamic, youthful energy, but unfortunately the evening fell flat.

Alessio Bax © Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Alessio Bax
© Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, in its orchestral arrangement, provided a pleasant opening. The strings were rich and smooth and the orchestral sound was well-balanced. Ashkenazy never let the performance slip into sentimentality and it was a well-judged opener that countered the energy of the following pieces well.

As the name suggests, Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, is a continuous stream of variations on Paganini’s timeless Caprice no. 24 in A minor. It can roughly be segmented so as to represent the structure of a conventional piano concerto, with its grand central major-key Adagio, its most popular excerpt. However, one of the joys of this piece is its sense of ever-evolving inventiveness. What was most disappointing about this performance was the lack of cohesion. Ashkenazy paused for just slightly too long in between sections, which interrupted the flow and momentum of the music. Pianist Alessio Bax gave an accurate and bold reading of the piece but was not supported by the orchestra. There is a certain flamboyance to this piece, particularly in its orchestration, but that sense of energy and fun was missing; a lot of the orchestral detail also disappeared into the background and the piano line was surprisingly dominant throughout. The string playing in the famous 18th variation was accomplished and the brass produced a big and clean sound. However it was at times so incoherent and muddled that even a piece this familiar became difficult to follow. This did not bode well for the prospect of the orchestra tackling the most-frequently performed symphony in the repertoire in the second half.

It would be a challenge to bring something new to Dvořák's “New World” Symphony, although it has remained intoxicating to audiences for over a century now so that even a very standard reading will make for an easy, crowd-pleasing ending to a concert. It was surprising how lacklustre this interpretation was. There were some promising moments – the horn theme in the first movement and the cor anglais solo were both played to a professional, engaging standard. These aside, the performance was generally marred by a surprising number of fluffed entries, particularly from the woodwinds, and a number of wrong notes in the lower strings. This was even more dangerous in such a familiar work. Dvořák's writing for the lower strings, particularly in his later symphonies, is very intricate and frequently drives the momentum of the faster movements on whilst the upper strings play lush, folk-like melodies, and this balance was notably absent for this performance. This was no more apparent than in the Beethoven-influenced Scherzo where the rhythmic motifs that build up the piece are passed through the orchestra in a complex, antiphonal manner reminiscent of much earlier music. The climax of the piece also lacked fire, and for an orchestra of musicians getting their first experiences of playing in a professional ensemble, their playing seemed tired.

The occasional fluffed note, or staggered entry can be forgiven but the lack of character and zeal in this concert was a disappointment.

**111