sat 13/07/2024

ECO, Zacharias, Fairfield Halls Croydon review - green-fingered Haydn | reviews, news & interviews

ECO, Zacharias, Fairfield Halls Croydon review - green-fingered Haydn

ECO, Zacharias, Fairfield Halls Croydon review - green-fingered Haydn

The lights are back on and burning cheerfully at south London’s new/old orchestral venue

Christian Zacharias, bringing old-school warmth to Haydn and Mozart© Andrea Felvégi

Switch off for a phrase or two and it’s easy to miss the point in a Haydn symphony that makes each one of them odd and unique. In No. 74, played last night with understated class by the English Chamber Orchestra, that point occurs in the first movement, at the end of the second theme. All has gone just as you’d expect.

A three-chord call to attention – only one more than the so-revolutionary Eroica – and straight to the business of the day, a worker ant of a melody, busying around with inscrutably purposeful energy. The second theme swoops in – then stops, like a sparrow at the end of a branch, and hops about, from one leg to the other. There’s an even longer branch in the recapitulation, and there the sparrow still hops, waiting for a juicy worm.

Firstly as a pianist, latterly a conductor too, Christian Zacharias is a wise, experienced gardener of Classical-era repertoire. He digs into Haydn’s fertile soil with an ear and eye for such points of difference, although not so deeply as to turn over the movement’s ordered form and leave a pile of postmodern debris. Harmony reigned here and in the slow movement’s shy melody on first violins, accompanied by a walking bass on a single cello, like a girl singing to herself at night and trying not to wake the neighbours.

Such discretion was rightly laid aside for the Second Piano Concerto of Beethoven. Even in this, one of the earliest and outwardly conservative of his orchestral works, he leaves no room for understatement – the performers must pull their shoulders back and put on a show. Crisp fortissimos in the opening tutti carried a force beyond even Haydn’s buoyant finale, and Zacharias followed them up at the piano with an account of the solo part that asserted Beethoven in every bar.

Close your eyes and you could almost hear the swish of vinyl

He has worked with the ECO since the 1980s, and they in turn have played with pianist-directors for longer still. A lively spirit of mutual understanding allowed him to wave his arms down by the keyboard, and them to grasp all that was needed from the shoulders, and eyes. The actual sound of their work together rather belied such assured partnership. For the lid of the house Steinway to be removed and the soloist-conductor to face away from the stage is common enough, but on this stage the piano sound disappeared up into the flies, leaving a muddy jangle of notes that jarred with the orchestra’s sleek unanimity of tone. It did neither Beethoven or Zacharias any favours.

At just 27 strong, the ECO filled the bright acoustic of the renovated Phoenix Concert Hall with an old-school warmth. Close your eyes and you could almost hear the swish of vinyl from one of their EMI recordings during Mozart’s 40th Symphony in the second half. You wouldn’t even need to get up and turn the LP over halfway through, with Zacharias leaving out the repeats in the slow movement and finale. No matter: it left time for an encore which returned orchestra and conductor to the established excellence of their Haydn, with the slow movement of Symphony No. 98 in which the composer paid loving tribute to the memory of his late friend Mozart by quoting the Agnus dei from the "Coronation" Mass.

Word is slow getting out that south London has a world-class concert hall on its doorstep once again – the audience fitted in the front half of the stalls with room to spare. More ECO concerts like this one, and people will come.


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