Southbank Sinfonia/Reynolds review – remarkable young orchestra shows that less can be more

<span>Rising magnificently to the challenge … Philippa Boyle.</span><span>Photograph: Sophie Oliver</span>
Rising magnificently to the challenge … Philippa Boyle.Photograph: Sophie Oliver

The concerts of the Society for Private Musical Performances that Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils established in Vienna in 1919 regularly included performances of arrangements that reduced contemporary orchestral scores to more convenient ensemble proportions. But even Schoenberg avoided the challenge of scaling down his monodrama Erwartung, one of the landmark achievements of his atonal expressionist years. Yet, that was the task that conductor Lee Reynolds set himself, and he made his version of the score the first item in his concert with the Southbank Sinfonia devoted to music from the 1900s.

Reynolds revealed his skill as an arranger during the Covid lockdown, when he reduced the score of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges to 27 players for a hugely successful video version of the opera. For Erwartung, he used an orchestra of 35, with double wind rather than the quadruple forces specified by Schoenberg, and just 20 strings. In the warm acoustic of St John’s it sounded totally convincing, with the febrile intensity of the original preserved quite wonderfully. The soprano protagonist in this enigmatic scena, who may or may not have murdered the lover whose body she discovers, was Philippa Boyle, rising magnificently to meet every challenge of the formidably demanding vocal lines; it made for a totally involving experience.

The other two works in the Southbank Sinfonia’s programme were also played in Reynolds’ arrangements, and in many ways his version of the great Adagio that begins Mahler’s unfinished 10th Symphony was an even more remarkable achievement than the Schoenberg. In music that veers between lonely, wandering string lines and massive catastrophic climaxes, and is riven with chasms of silence, the tonal weight of a full orchestra was hardly ever missed, even in the shrieking nine-note chord that provides its moment of maximum anguish. Every single strand of the textures mattered, but nothing seemed to be overlooked by this remarkable orchestra of young professionals, and their performance of a “suite” from Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande was equally fine. Not so much a suite and more an almost seamless rhapsody tracing out the scenario of the opera, it didn’t quite come off as a concert item, despite its perfect evocation of Debussy’s sound world.