Last night’s concert programme read like the travelling itinerary of a young English aristocrat embarking on the fashionable “Grand Tour” of Europe. The concert began in Spain with Rodrigo’s Fantasia para un gentilhombre, a piece as imbued with the flavours of Spanish folk music as his more famous Concierto de Aranjuéz, also for guitar and orchestra. From Spain we continued to the Italy beloved of E.M. Forster and Byron alike in Berlioz’s symphonic Harold in Italy. The tour ended in Brahms’s native Germany with his first Piano Concerto, from where our young gentleman would have returned home laden with spurious treasures.

© Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
© Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

The Fantasia with which the concert began, however, gives a far more authentic flavour of Spain than a still-wet painting allegedly by one of the Old Masters. Rodrigo’s music is steeped in Spanish melodies and culture, particularly folk music, and the four movements of the piece are all based on dances from around the country. Guitarist Sam Cave did an excellent job of transporting his audience to the hazy heat of a Spanish evening, particularly in the more lyrical sections where his guitar – a notoriously difficult instrument to balance against the orchestra - managed to fill the hall.

And so to Italy. Berlioz’s Harold in Italy takes its name from Lord Byron’s poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a semi-autobiographical work which describes a disillusioned young man’s travels in Italy. The piece is written as a symphony but has a viola soloist who represents the voice of that “melancholy dreamer” Childe Harold. Berlioz, a supreme orchestral innovator, was the first composer to see the viola’s expressive potential and tonight’s soloist Miriam Ruetschi did not disappoint. Her viola sang throughout Harold’s Italian adventures, despite being sometimes lost underneath the louder orchestral passages. I Maestri serves as a training ground for young conductors and the first half of the concert was conducted by London-based Jean-Louis Gosselin. It was clear that Gosselin fully engaged with the emotions which run through Berlioz’s second symphony, although he struggled to create the clear beat which would have allowed the orchestra to play in time.

The orchestra’s founder and artistic director George Hlawiczka conducted the German part of the tour, managing to create a different sound entirely. Whether due to the nature of Brahms’s massive first piano concerto, the change of conductor or perhaps a real liking for Germany, the orchestra suddenly gained energy and created a broad sound over which soloist Marianna Prjevalskaya could soar. Despite the difficulty of being unable to see the conductor without leaning backwards due to the small stage she created a wonderfully balanced performance, allowing individual phrases plenty of time whilst never letting the piece drag. This impressively architectural view is especially crucial given the epic proportions of the piece: a fifty-minute concerto is as unusual as a programme which contains three works for soloist and orchestra.

As befits the purpose of I Maestri the programming was obviously at least in part for the benefit of the two conductors, as working with soloist and orchestra requires many additional skills to the very many already demanded of conductors in purely orchestral works. It was also an excellent opportunity to showcase three talented young musicians. That said, it was a shame that the orchestra never got the chance to properly sink its teeth into a piece without fear of overshadowing the soloist and that the concert didn’t finish until ten o’clock, by which time we were all ready to leave the excitement of a European tour for the more prosaic journey home.