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Concert review: Aristo Sham with the English Chamber Orchestra

8 March 2016
Concert review: Aristo Sham with the English Chamber Orchestra
On Saturday 5th March the faithful throng of Leeds’ concert-goers, removing themselves from the cold of an early March evening into the warmth of the full, well-lit Town Hall, nestled themselves in their seats and prepared for an evening of music from the first half of the nineteenth century: Schubert’s Ouverture im Italienischen Style, D. 591 (1817), Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto (1809), and Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony (1829–42). The orchestra was well turned-out, with men in coattails, and a pleasant anarchy among the ladies.

Schubert Ouverture

With Schubert’s short introductory piece, the orchestra and conductor Garry Walker immediately evidenced their thorough rehearsal and sensitivity to the music, performing its opening triple time Adagio with a liveliness and buoyancy which never once tipped into haste. Into the faster sections, the performers communicated the playfulness of spirit, the vocalesque melodies, and the rapid changes of articulation and nuance of mood which display themselves in this most carefree Rossinian Schubert.

Beethoven, Emperor Concerto

As the applause for the first piece subsided, two suited stagehands rolled the Town Hall’s resident Steinway to centre-stage for the centrepiece of the evening: Aristo Sham’s reading of the Emperor Concerto. To courteous applause a very young and diminutive pianist walked on stage, wearing a blue and white spotted bowtie against the more commonplace black tie attire, his too-much trouser break, and, I saw upon his taking his seat, his complementary spotted socks.

At the keyboard, determination characterised his opening stance. Such was the virility of his playing, he seemed at times likely to launch himself from his seat. These moments of jaw-clenched sternness, however, were tempered by softer passages, such as the great pianissimo leggiermente second theme. Constituting the most beautiful part of the first movement, Sham rose to their occasion with a sensitivity which wasn’t quite so present in the forte sections, in which he tended to play more on the side of fortissimo.

The famous second movement was handled with great sensitivity by orchestra and soloist, the former calling back to mind the brilliance of contrast in navigating the dynamics in the Schubert. As this movement dovetailed into the third and last, Sham played the theme with such gusto, I thought he would head-butt the piano. And, in certain stormy minor passages, I felt sure his stool was a trampoline, so did the force he used on the keys almost propel him into the air. In this movement, the tendency to exaggerate the Sturm und Drang edged upon the faintly silly, with a number of the solo passages becoming merely raucous.

After enthusiastic applause and discarding the flowers with which soloists are ever burdened, Sham chose for his encore a parody of the Rondo alla Turca. Though familiar, I couldn’t name the later composer who mutated the original material into this rollicking sweetmeat of unfortunate parallel octaves and constant fortissimi. This key-pounding was clearly where Sham was most comfortable and entertained, and its crowd-pleasing mixture of the familiar (Mozart) with the novel (the violence done to Mozart) gave rise to the roar from the audience which it was calculated to exact.

Overall, Sham gave a great and thrilling appearance, albeit just shy of the utmost refinement—of which the pianist is clearly capable. His playing style yielded an impressive density of sound and texture which, despite its pleasures, seemed incongruous within the more introspective sound of the chamber orchestra. Perhaps Sham is better acquainted with—or prefers—later, more boisterous repertoire and the larger orchestras for which such music calls. Nonetheless, he played with a fire quite in keeping with the temperament of the composition, and navigated the fluctuation between sternness and tenderness in Beethoven’s music with an appropriate spirit.

Mendelssohn, Scottish Symphony

The Steinway is side-staged, its lid closed. The orchestra and conductor have excelled at drama and contrast all evening, and rescue the Scottish Symphony, using those skills, from its limitations. In less skilled performances the two outer movements, especially, can seem monotonous, as the brief, unsearching melodies become merely repetitious, rather than achieving sustained variation. Mendelssohn’s penchant for twee melodies is undertaken with seriousness by the orchestra, and in the stormy section of the first movement, bow hairs fly from their homes in flurries of semi-quavers.

The second and third movements—the strongest and the most memorable in the symphony—became highlights of the evening. The light-heartedness of the second plays to Mendelssohn’s compositional strengths, calling to mind in this performance, the dappling of sunlight on the waters upon which the composer conducted his tour. The enjoyment of the orchestra was encapsulated by the leader of the second violins, who, literally on the edge of his seat, grinned at the audacious joy of the writing.

The third, an Adagio, possesses more substance by virtue of its involved—indeed, searching—melody, and is the real soul of the symphony. If the previous movement gave an idea of sun, this gave that of the melancholy setting thereof. The parting Allegro, although lacking the depth of the previous movement, benefitted from the musicians’ brilliant articulation of the thematic material. Particularly notable were the opening figures in the strings, which require finesse and grace of bowing, which these extremely well-rehearsed sections performed admirably. The cumulative drama of the movement gathered with magnificent gusto, breaking from a reflective duet for clarinet and bassoon, done with such care as to become the high point of the evening’s second half, into pomp and haughtiness. I wonder, however, whether at this point the orchestra quite succeeded in playing haughtily enough to persuade us that the symphony’s parting feeling of triumph was over something other than its own fallings short.

Nonetheless, all in all an excellent, richly stimulating and enjoyable evening of exhibited talent, technique and artistry. For tickets and future concert details see here.

It may be of interest to Leeds Living’s younger demographic that under-26 tickets are available in the week before any given concert for only £5.

By Charles Eager
Charles is a Volunteer Writer for Leeds Living, covering topics such as culture vulture, eat/drink, music/dance and city living.