Wednesday 11 February 2009

Who needs a baton?

You can listen to our Webern/Haydn/Beethoven concert on BBC Radio 3 this evening at 19.00 GMT. Hilary Finch in today's Times: 'Who needs a baton? Who even needs a conductor? The thought often occurs in performances in which a conductor's ego and body language become a distraction. Or, indeed, in performances in which an orchestra clearly knows what it's playing so intimately that all it needs to do is to listen and re-energise itself. It depends on size and repertoire, of course. But the Britten Sinfonia, led by Jacqueline Shave, showed that it could handle Webern, Haydn and Beethoven convincingly without the pantomime on the podium.

The raison d'ĂȘtre of Imogen Cooper directs Beethoven was the Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor. There were no frilly hand gestures; no lungeing of the body towards the orchestra; no coy nods and winks. What transfixed the audience was the palpable energy that coursed from player to player: from keyboard to leader's bow, from violins to woodwind and brass, and back again.

The organic power and economy of Beethoven's writing felt more dynamic than ever. Cooper's own rhythmic regeneration of theme and counter- theme, her sense of direction, and her ability to let the music yield and breathe, led to a fearless cadenza with a movingly hushed exit. A veiled inwardness hung over the slow movement. And the finale was measured, tense with concentrated energy, and with wonderfully tapered phrases of harp-like passagework.

This was the grand finale of an evening that had begun, courageously, with an impassioned performance of Webern's Five Movements - miniatures of finely-tuned sensibility and raw nerve endings, each one dazzlingly democratic in its re-creation. The presence of a conductor could have added nothing here, and little in Haydn's Symphony No 88.'

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