The Chamber Philharmonic Europe is an orchestra of some sixty players from all over Europe, founded in Cologne in 2006. During this past month, ten of its players have been touring a popular classical programme round small venues across the country, taking classical music to the far-flung reaches of the kingdom. Heading south from concerts in Thurso and Inverurie, this performance found them in Birnam Arts Centre near Dunkeld, Scotland, where a decent crowd filled the hall.

Kammerphilharmonie-Europa
Kammerphilharmonie-Europa

To begin, Polish leader and musical director Pawel Zuzanski was the soloist in Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto no. 4 in A minor, one of the set of concertos known as “La Stravaganza”. Brisk unison string playing at the start of the first Allegro, and steady continuo from harpsichord, cello and bass showcased Zuzanski’s energetic playing, with him occasionally trading phrases with the two first violins. The central Grave, with slow dotted rhythm in the upper strings, allowed some breathing space before the brilliant second Allegro, a virtuosic movement with some finely-judged phrases with echo rounding things off.

Composer Amilcare Ponchielli had rather a lean time in his early career, and took jobs conducting in various opera houses, playing the organ in church and was bandmaster in Cremona for twelve years. He later became famous for his opera La Gioconda and was appointed a professor at the Milan Conservatory where a certain Giacomo Puccini would be one of his students. For Ponchielli’s Trumpet Concerto in F, a lively showpiece for the soloist which clearly references Ponchielli’s wind band experience, the string players were joined by Russian trumpet player Krill Gusarov. Solemn pizzicato chords opened the Allegro, but soon gave way to a more dance-band sprightly accompaniment, with a flamboyant performance from the double bass in particular. This was no simple tea dance however, as Ponchielli teased us with subtle rhythm changes throughout. Gusarov played brilliantly, with lots of attention to detail particularly in extended fiendishly quick continuous passages in the final movement, where taking a breath must have been difficult.

Zuzanski was joined by a violinist from the band to perform Bach’s well-known Double Concerto for two violins in D minor. In a way, although given a technically good though not faultless performance, this was the most disappointing piece of the evening. Arranged with only one player to a string part, there was slightly muddy continuo at the very start and end of the Vivace. The central Largo ma non tanto lacked dynamic control which could have allowed individual voices to have been given more space. It must be a challenge to keep this piece fresh after playing it every night on the tour, and this simply needed more sparkle to make it really sing.

Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in D major, Op. 6 no. 4 followed the break, with the concertino of the two lead violins exchanging phrases through the various movements, culminating in a lively Giga.

The mood changed completely, moving us out of the baroque with a haunting performance of Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane, mostly known as a piano piece, but here the cello and first violin shared the main elegant theme, with other string parts fitting their contributions together like a jigsaw.

Finally, we were given a complete performance of Edvard Greig’s Holberg Suite. Written originally for piano in 1884 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Danish-Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg, Greig wanted to refer to the musical styles current in Holberg’s time. Played here in the established arrangement for strings, this was an enjoyable introduction and set of dances, ending in a confidently played hornpipe.

The Chamber Philharmonic Europe are rather traditional in appearance, with the men dressed in elegant tails and white bow ties, where perhaps we are more used to other chamber groups who have moved to the more contemporary look of black shirts and trousers. We are also accustomed to a programme or even an A4 handout with details about the players and the music, but neither was provided, although each piece was introduced from the stage.

The capacity audience was clearly delighted by the performance which was a rare chance to hear a European classical ensemble in a small rural venue. Warm sustained applause was rewarded by encores of Ástor Piazzolla’s Oblivion and a Russian jazzy number, particularly relished by the “dancing” double bass player.

***11