Review: CUCO – Three Impressionists

Daniel Leung & Fiona Lin 2 November 2014

In an evening of colour, emotion and energy, the Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra (CUCO) took us on a journey through the magic and imagination of French Impressionism, featuring music from Ravel, Francaix and Ibert. Throughout the concert, not only did the orchestra, under the direction of Peter Stark, perform with great character and rhythmic precision, but the soloist, Rees Webster, also showed flair and artistry by bringing Francaix’s oboe concerto l’Horloge de Fleur to life with incredible skill.

Beginning with Ravel’s 'Tombeau de Couperin', CUCO demonstrated their wide palette of tonal colour, with their sensitivity to dynamics and ensemble. The interplay between the different sections of the orchestra, passing the meandering melodies back and forth, and the rise and fall of the musical themes, were executed with refined elegance. Even though perhaps sometimes a little more time could have been afforded between phrases to soak in the complex harmonies, and maybe even more prominence could have been given to the harp, CUCO clearly explored a variety of characters. Intense emotional episodes, particularly poignant and melancholic in Ravel’s 'Pavane', were juxtaposed with energetic drive and light-hearted fun, captured especially through the crispness of the strings’ pizzicato scenes. 

Francaix’s Oboe Concerto 'l’Horloge de Fleur' added yet another colourful dimension to the concert, foregrounding oboe soloist Rees Webster and his spell-binding interpretation, accompanied by the chamber orchestra. The interaction between the soloist and orchestra was performed with clarity and balance. Attention to articulation from both the oboist and orchestra resulted in a light, dance-like accompaniment from which the soloist was able to establish an authoritative, yet magical voice.

Ibert’s 'Divertissement' made for a dramatic opening after interval, with the percussion particularly adding to the already commanding sound of the strings. The mournful piano passages of the ‘Nocturne’ were punctuated by many moments of musical parody, which amply provided the orchestra with an opportunity to demonstrate the enjoyment propelling their music making. As the piece raced towards its ending, the merriment was evident in the enthusiastic col legno performed by the cellos and the unorthodox whistle deployed by the conductor.

Another Ravel composition, the Ma Mere l’Oye suite, closed the concert. Although the suite is comprised of deceptively simple pieces inspired by French children’s stories, the rich tonal variation arising from the balance of each section clearly testified to the skill of both the CUCO and Peter Stark. The violins, barring some initial hesitancy in reaching the high notes, ultimately provided some of the most beautifully delicate and refined sounds of the evening.

The volume of the conclusion was only eclipsed by the rapturous applause of the audience, with the particularly loud clapping for Rees Webster an apt recognition of his masterful solo performance. CUCO’s first concert of the academic year was not only a rediscovery of some of the treasures of French Impressionist music, but a reminder of the quality of the ensemble. Based on the success of this opening concert, CUCO will surely continue to field further musical delights.