Whatever else “Brexit” might bring, at least it can’t stop excellent British musicians from visiting us here in Ireland. Last night, we had the pleasure of listening to the world’s most recorded chamber orchestra, the English Chamber Orchestra with the exciting, young British violinist Jennifer Pike as soloist.

Jennifer Pike © Tom Barnes
Jennifer Pike
© Tom Barnes

The English connection was highlighted in the programme too with Haydn’s Oxford Symphony and Vaughan Williams' haunting The Lark Ascending, while the two Beethoven pieces made an obvious pairing. What was not so obvious, at first, was the imbalance in timings, the first half lasting an hour, while the second half with the short Symphony no. 8 in F major by Beethoven lasting under 30 minutes. I thought that two Beethoven pieces together would have made for a more satisfying and longer second half. It was not until the encores kept generously pouring in did all this make sense.

Haydn’s so-called “Oxford” Symphony impressed from the gentle Adagio opening with Uruguayan conductor José Serebrier enticing a delicate sound from the strings. The chattering semiquavers of the ensuing Allegro spiritoso bustled with life and cheery good humour. The taut, fulsome tone of the forte balanced nicely with the playful dialogue between strings and woodwind. Principal oboist David Thomas allowed his melody to soar beautifully in the second movement while the daring harmonic shifts were done with evident enjoyment from the whole orchestra. So too were the disjointed phrasing and syncopation of the Minuet, humour lurking in every offbeat accent. The finale bubbled with mischievous intrigue, the ECO relishing the sforzando on chromatic notes. The occasional staccato section among the violins sounded a little less charming in the minor section, but Serebrier expertly raised the tension levels to bring it to a satisfying climax.

Up next were the two pieces for soloist Jennifer Pike. The ever popular Lark Ascending is outwardly a simple piece but hides fiendish difficulties, its avian evocation depending on the delicate filigree floating effortlessly into the ether. Using a restrained vibrato, Pike coaxed a golden sound from her violin, allowing the pentatonic arpeggios to waft along the warm, complex harmonies from the orchestra. The ECO was most sensitive in its accompaniment, Serebrier evoking a diaphanous sound palette. The subtly and accuracy with which Pike nailed the double stops and octaves in the higher registers belied their technical difficulty, while the rippling sounds of the livelier mid-section captured the mercurial flight of Vaughan Williams' lark, now hovering in the heights, now diving to the depths and up again.

Beethoven’s warhorse Romance in F major was performed at a flowing pace, perhaps a shade too quickly. The phrases were beautifully conceived and Pike’s tone exquisite, but the music needed to breathe a little more. The double-dotted notes of the orchestra were aptly sharp, while the filigree and pearly high notes for the soloist glistened. A Bach Prelude in E showcased both the musicianship and virtuosity of this extraordinarily gifted young violinist.

The Eighth is the shortest of all Beethoven’s symphonies but what it lacks in length, it more than makes up for in drive. Serebrier elicited a more fulsome sound from the orchestra for this symphony than for Haydn’s, yet in the more delicate moments the ECO never lost the intimate chamber music sound. The opening Allegro vivace swaggered along with the ECO adept at the sudden switch in extreme dynamics from fortissimo to pianissimo. The metronomic pulse of the woodwinds in the second movement set the backdrop for the merry dialogue between the strings. The third movement plodded along, Serebrier emphasising the thumping rhythm and the earthy qualities of the minuet. The finale thrilled with nervous energy, breathless before exploding on to the tonic. At times, in the transition to A major for instance, the strings sounded a little frayed. This didn’t stop Serebrier’s nor the ECO’s enjoyment of the shifts of keys, buoyed up by the muscular arpeggios. With his hands aloft, the conductor brought the symphony to its victorious ending.

Just as Serebrier had proved himself astute in eliciting the best from the ECO, so he now proved himself adept at working the audience. Taking out a concealed microphone he introduced each of the four encores in a humorous fashion. Bach’s Air from his suite no. 3 was simply played allowing the music to speak for itself in all its wondrous glory. Mozart’s Overture to Le Nozze di Figaro zipped along with vim and vigour while oboist David Thomas cast a magical web in Piazzolla’s Oblivion the delicate tendrils of melody hovering above the romantic harmonies. Ending with the catchy rhythms and harmonies of Leroy Anderson’s Jazz Pizzicato Serebrier and the ECO had the audience jumping to its feet.