It was a little field trip to the Czech Republic that the Orchestra of the Swan and Raphael Wallfish invited the audience to join this afternoon with Mozart's "Prague" Symphony and some of Dvořák's delightful works for cello. The view was great, but the ride wasn't without its bumps.

Raphael Wallfisch © Benjamin Ealovega
Raphael Wallfisch
© Benjamin Ealovega

That its sound force doesn't need to shy away from comparison with that of a big symphony orchestra was something the Orchestra of the Swan demonstrated within seconds of Mozart's symphony. The strings had to fight against the winds a little, and one could have wished that David Curtis' calm gestures translated to the playing of the orchestra, particularly in the slow movement. The final movement, however, was light and full of verve, but still washed big fortes over the listener and nicely brought out the dynamic contrasts Mozart uses to play with the listener's expectations.

This was well matched by Raphael Wallfisch's very warm, smooth sound. His playing has a grounded quality and employs a pleasantly moderate vibrato, both of which suited Dvořák's elegiac Silent Woods very well. It was a more slender take on this lyrical character piece, less emotionally charged but not cold, and ended touchingly beautiful close, breathing, with a heartbeat.

Wallfisch had opted to present it together with Dvořák's Rondo, and the two pieces worked really well as a pair. The rondo's initial, moderate pace made for a smooth transition into the three distinctly Bohemian themes that Wallfisch communicated directly to the violins and cellos, and in turn the orchestra supported him brilliantly, swelling underneath his repetitions and going along with the surge of gentle accellerandos.

The following Cello Concerto now had something to live up to. The Orchestra of the Swan continued its solid performance, but it played as if it was playing a symphony rather than in an accompanying role. There is an anecdote that reports Dvořák questioning the cello's suitability as a solo instrument, but the way he introduces the solo line, all exposed after a grand orchestral introduction, should dispel all doubts. And Wallfisch played his part formidably.

With a slightly more opulent vibrato, he retained the naturalness of his tone, played the arpeggios lightly from the wrist, no drama or great mannerism. I wonder what they sounded like. Unfortunately, practically all virtuoso passages and figurations were overpowered by the orchestra, which was not aided by the fact that the orchestra could not adapt to Wallfisch's subtle rubati even though he and David Curtis worked hard to keep things together. One would have wished for more balance management and coordination from Curtis, and the few passages with reduced accompaniment came as a relief. The listener could finally enjoy Wallfisch's musical expression and his particularly pretty, well-shaped sound in the uppermost register with only a hint of vibrato.

It was an enjoyable performance from Wallfisch, underlined by the Sarabande from Bach's Suite in C, which he played as an encore. It was a solid performance from the orchestra, with a strong wind section and violins so precise they often emerged as a single, strong ray of sound. It was just one of those occasions where two musical interpretations, each on its own, showed the artists' proficiency, but failed to merge and form a unity.

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