Review: English Chamber Orchestra with Howard Shelley, The Apex, Bury St Edmunds Festival, Saturday May 21

English Chamber Orchestra with Howard Shelley, The Apex, Bury St Edmunds Festival, Saturday May 21

In the absence of a large-scale symphony orchestra in this year’s Bury St Edmunds Festival – well, these are straitened times, I guess – lovers of classical instrumental music were well catered for in this concert by the prestigious English Chamber Orchestra.

Under the masterful direction of Howard Shelley the orchestra began with Grieg’s Holberg Suite, which introduced us to the beautifully balanced and expressive sound which this ensemble makes. In the Piano Concert in E flat (K271), written when Mozart was just 21, Howard Shelley, as soloist, directed from the piano, giving a sparkling and accomplished performance.

The melancholic slow movement was beautifully expressive, and the final fast movement a ‘tour de force’. The Apex proved to be well suited to this kind of sound, though (presumably through some lapse of organisation), the audience quickly found itself sweltering and wishing for air-conditioning.

In the light of that it was somewhat ironic that after the interval there was a contemporary piece by David Heath (b. 1956) called ‘Sahara’. Quirkily introduced and conducted by the composer himself, it was an atmospheric and effective work showcasing the extraordinary virtuosity of the orchestra’s oboist John Anderson, and featuring North African percussion and other influences.

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Finally Howard Shelley returned to conduct Haydn’s Symphony no 6 in D (‘Le Matin’) – another performance of seemingly effortless precision and beautifully defined light and shade which highlighted the outstanding quality of the orchestra’s string section leaders, as well as the wind and brass soloists. It was a concert to savour – a real treat!

Wynn Rees

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