Here’s a tasty concept. Instead of streaming full evening concerts, the English Chamber Orchestra has gone after the Sunday matinee audience with a four-week series entitled Teatime Music. Its marketing features tempting morsels, including Devil’s food cake for The Soldier’s Tale and pastel-coloured macarons for Walton’s Façade. Fairies, Fauns and Fantasy features a teapot bearing a rose-tinted herbal brew, but I prepared for the programme of sun-kissed Debussy and Ravel by baking a dozen madeleines instead, lightly dusted with icing sugar. 

English Chamber Orchestra © English Chamber Orchestra
English Chamber Orchestra
© English Chamber Orchestra

The Dining Room Gallery of Beckenham Place Mansion, with its powder-blue Georgian fireplace and plastered ceiling, was just large enough to fit in twelve socially-distanced ECO players. The room has a resonant acoustic, the recorded audio beautifully balanced. Birds chirruping, the hum of a bumble-bee and shots of the garden filled the brief pauses between the three works. 

The most familiar chamber reduction of the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was by Benno Sachs, made in 1920 for one of Arnold Schoenberg’s chamber concerts, and rather relies on the piano and harmonium to flesh out Debussy’s textures. Iain Farrington’s arrangement replaces the keyboard instruments with a harp and reinstates the bassoon and horn, helping regain a balance between woodwinds and strings. Despite the reduced forces, the sultriness of the faun’s erotic daydreams was still palpable, the absence of a conductor giving flautist Harry Winstanley the freedom to stretch his long, languorous phrases. 

Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro was commissioned by the Érard company to showcase its double-action pedal harp in response to the Pleyel-commissioned Danse sacrée et danse profane by Debussy. And the harp is truly the star here, so Sally Pryce was placed centre-stage, the buffer between the woodwinds (flute and clarinet) and the string quartet. The Ravel inhabits a cooler world than Debussy’s steamy Faune and this performance was suitably crisp and elegant, all pressed white napkins and paper doilies. Pryce’s playing was exquisite, especially in the lengthy cadenza where her glissandos were veiled in gossamer. 

Sally Pryce © English Chamber Orchestra
Sally Pryce
© English Chamber Orchestra

The programme concluded with the suite from Ravel’s Mother Goose, Farrington’s reduction for the same forces as the Faune. It works well enough, although I rather missed the growling contrabassoon in Beauty and the Beast and the percussion glitter in the Fairy Garden apotheosis. Roger Chase, with what looked like a tea towel cushioning his viola, produced a warm timbre, contrasting with the lithe violin sound of director David Juritz. Tom Thumb was a woodland delight, bosky clarinet and bassoon heralding the piccolo and violin twitter of birdsong, and Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas, processed under a patina of polished string tone. 

Your £10 ticket gets you 24-hour access, but only a single “on demand” viewing after the “as live” broadcast, which is a little miserly if you fancy second helpings. I’d better brew another pot of tea swiftly...

This performance was reviewed from the video stream.

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