REVIEW: Peter Donohoe plays Mozart, Orchestra of the Swan

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Peter Donohoe

Peter Buckroyd reviews Orchestra of the Swan, Peter Donohoe plays Mozart No. 25, Stratford Arts House, 30th April 2019

Jason Lai is one of the best conductors of Orchestra of the Swan we have heard in recent years and appears to have a real affinity with English music. His interpretations of the two Vaughan Williams pieces in this programme – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Symphony No.5 in D Major – were astounding. Your vision as a conductor, however, is only as good as the players can manage. He brought the best out of Orchestra of the Swan. I only heard one little blip in the Tallis and a very few moments of dodgy breath and intonation control in the Symphony.

The Fantasia was taken fractionally more slowly than some of the recordings I have heard which allowed the lovely links between phrases to become slightly more attenuated and therefore more suspenseful. The contrast between the portamento and lyrical passages was wonderful. Lai made the most of the completely different mood in the pizzicato lower strings which brought out the sadness and longing in the piece.

In the Symphony our attention was drawn to shape and line throughout and the way the interweaving textures in the first movement led into the very quiet ending of the first movement was gorgeous. The dance like second movement is quite different from the lush textures of the Tallis. Lai emphasised the way lyrical lines are broken up so that from time to time the dance had a splendid bacchanalian quality, skittish and even galumphing. The beautiful third movement brought us back to pared-down Tallis territory with its ethereal opening What the programme notes referred to as ‘the agitated section’ was here not so much agitated as painfully emotional unfulfilled longing, reaching a dramatic moment of emotional outpouring before subsiding into resignation. Glorious. I had not heard before how closely the fourth movement mirrors the time when the Symphony was composed – 1938-43 – just before and during the Second World War when the familiar was dashed and replaced by new unknowns or partially forgottens. It was something about the way Lai moved between the different sections that placed me firmly in that territory where nothing is secure except memories. And we are left with the question of what will be enduring. Will it be the memories of the past or the chaos of the present?

The other work in the programme was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.25 in C major, K503. Most of it is fairly simple, alternating between orchestra and piano. The best moments were where Peter Donohoe showed how roles are reversed. For much of the opening movement the orchestra picked up themes initiated by the piano but the most interesting feature of all three movements were when instead of the flute accompanying the piano the roles were reversed. Donohoe and Diane Clark on flute brought out these moments wonderfully. I’m sure it must have had something to do with Jason Lai, too.