The Classical Ensemble produced an excellent concert packed with a variety of styles. They began with French Baroque music, celebrating the European Early Music Day 2019 with the Overture and March from Le Bourgeois gentilhomme by Jean-Baptiste Lully, and Jean-Féry Rebel’s Les caractères de la danse. The overture’s exciting minor key dramaticism was instantly conveyed, with trumpets excellently punctuating the French Overture rhythmic style, while the sync was impressive in the march. The Rebel allowed DUCE to showcase their longer phrasing to great effect, with superb instrumental balance. The orchestra were very responsive to the frequent tempo changes of the various dance movements from conductor, Bruno Needham, although occasionally cohesion towards the ends of phrases wasn’t quite there. Perhaps if Needham would look up to the orchestra more often this would improve. The rapid ‘sonate’ movements in particular were well managed by the players.

Next came the Italian Baroque of Francesco Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso in D minor, La Folia. With the woodwinds gone, the less constrained space on stage for the strings to stand up in this piece, coupled with the style itself I felt helped produce a very free and musical performance, with great character and sensitivity across the orchestra. The viciously difficult solos played by cello principal Rob King and leader Megan Hathaway were stupendous, transfixing both audience and orchestra by their technical skill. Although on occasion the respite of the final held note was lifted a tad disjointedly, this largely improved. Intonation was wonderful and communication across the orchestra was great. The double bass playing was especially satisfying in the slower sections, as was the concluding ritenuto.

What followed was the great Double Violin Concerto by J. S. Bach, with soloists Millie Harding and Becky Taylor. The direction of phrasing across orchestra and soloists was very good, being especially moving from the soloists in the Largo ma non tanto movement. The beautifully controlled dynamics with just the right tempo combined to really bring out Bach’s beautiful harmonic writing. The rising minor sequence rose with crippling chromatic tension and drive. Occasionally I disagreed with the articulation employed by the soloists although its consideration is what is important. Technical control on scalic runs and sync by both soloists were very strong; I felt Millie brought out ornamentation particularly well. Throughout I felt I needed more dynamic from Becky to sustain the constant dialogue between first and second violin, and at the ends of movements I wanted a slightly longer and slower spread from the harpsichord. Overall the drama of the work was excellently expressed by all with a strong finish to the first half.

The viciously difficult solos played by cello principal Rob King and leader Megan Hathaway were stupendous, transfixing both audience and orchestra by their technical skill.

The second half commenced with the incidental music of Franz Schubert’s Entr’acte No. 3 from Rosamunde. Timing was excellent from the onset, although there was an instance where the end of a phrase ran out of steam before all the parts had completed their lines. The cello and bass pizzicato could also have been cleaner at times. Personally I thought the work a rather boring introduction to the second half, but this was swiftly turned around by the following Mozart: Symphony No. 40.

The popular opening theme in the violins was expressed beautifully with good sync, despite phrases perhaps being cut off too sharply at their conclusion. On occasion I wanted more contrast in the celebrated terraced dynamics, as tempting crescendos slightly gave the game away. The opening viola entry was unfortunately never quite as clean as sought. Cellos were excellent in the violent passages, although across the ensemble I tended to get a slight delayed lurching effect in the legato passages. The quieter fragments in the woodwinds had wonderful arcs, although I needed a tad more projection. Intonation was very good bar only a few occasional slips.

Of the second movement I expected more. The tempo felt hasty, with the orchestra not quite settling for a time. In the heart-wrenching climaxes of the movement I sadly never got quite enough emotion. The short stabbing semiquaver motif kept rushing among woodwinds, becoming swung, and crescendos appeared where they were not required. That said, intonation among woodwinds in particular was excellent and the horn playing was beautiful.

The third movement again felt rushed; the suspensions for me just didn’t have time to breathe. However the character was well conveyed and the phrasing powerful despite it.

Upcoming Concerts

DUCE Summer concert– 21 June 7:30 pm

Music Durham Cathedral concert– 8 June 7:30 pm

I very much enjoyed the fast tempo in the fourth movement, which was played with infectious energy and good terracing, with sensitive playing when desired. As the theme whizzed around the orchestra and between the strings and woodwinds as whole sections the instruments came right out of the texture which was great. Mozart’s motivic development was well expressed and the symphony ended on a high note.

But there was one more work on the programme! Unusual to conclude a concert with an overture, but I thought it worked. Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont began with a fantastically strong, demanding opening, followed by sensitively played woodwind passages with well arced antiphony. The suspense in the silent moments was captivating, before the overture announced its conclusion with great gusto.

In conclusion the musical excellence of this group is very clear, despite occasional shortcomings. The players clearly very much enjoy performing the music they do and inject it with all their technical and musical expertise with great effect. I strongly encourage you to attend their next performances on the 8th and 21st of June!