Spring concert

Saturday 12 March 2016
Rob Barnett

“…the Tod trumpets rang out once again in raw, starry and straight-talking confidence.”

Certain works have a vigorous life in concert repertoire. Inevitably, given the sheer quantity of music, other works for the most part, tend to be heard, if they are heard at all, in recordings. Last night’s concert offered four pieces which are often heard in the concert hall and two that, these days, are usually recorded fare. The Elgar and Brahms are concert-hall regulars; the others not. They’re all nineteenth century works with only the Elgar teetering on the lip of the 20th century.

The Enigma Variations comprises variations each of which bears the initials or nicknames of ‘my friends pictured within’, as the dedication runs. Its immediate and sustained popularity – like that of his First Symphony – can be contrasted with the travails initially endured by Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius dating from the following year. Enigma is a work that runs the gamut of emotions and musical effects. It culminates in a flamboyant and confident self-portrait: E.D.U. – quite a Straussian and indeed unEnglish gesture. Together with a few other scores it carried Elgar’s name and reputation aloft during the doldrum days (1940s-1960s) when his music was considered unfashionable. The work’s success engendered some broadly contemporaneous pieces following a similar scheme including orchestral scores by two of Elgar’s Birmingham contacts: Granville Bantock (Helena Variations) and Joseph Holbrooke (Three Blind Mice Variations; Auld Lang Syne Variations, The Girl I Left Behind Me Variations).

Apart from omitting a symphony last night’s concert followed a conventional template: an overture then a concerto and after that a work of symphonic proportions (Enigma) but generously adding two extracts from Mendelssohn’s incidental music.

The full hall – including Todmorden’s usual and encouraging contingent of children – heard an orchestra of between 52 and 56 musicians. The concert began with Otto Nicolai’s once-popular The Merry Wives of Windsor overture (1850). This was the prelude to his comic opera after Shakespeare. A suavely played introduction after Mendelssohn and Weber leads on to music with a Viennese lilt, an Oberon-style hunt and, it has to be said, more than a trace element of bombast. The introduction caught the orchestra getting warmed up to cruising speed and the bombast was topped off by the typically excellent brass of the Todmorden band.

If you are of a certain generation this music is the stuff of ‘These You have Loved’ and of 78s and LP overture collections. Count this in the same company as these overtures: Reznicek’s Donna Diana, Smetana’s Bartered Bride, Hérold’s Zampa, Suppé’s Light Cavalry and Flotow’s Martha. It’s good to hear an old friend like this once in a while and all credit to Nicholas Concannon Hodges for kicking the dictates of fashion in programming it.

Next came the Brahms Violin Concerto with Todmorden newcomer, Ren Jian, winner of the RCM Concerto Competition 2014. From first note to last there was never any doubt about this violinist’s mastery in one of the great central staples of the repertoire. He held our interest and renewed our enthusiasm in a work that many will have heard time after time. In this the orchestra compounded the effect as if gaining in confidence in the implicit challenge and slip-stream of a very fine soloist indeed. Apart from a ‘bubbled’ phrase from the top-tier brass benches in the central movement the playing was excellent. I particularly noticed the nicely calculated and executed dynamic balance in the second movement where soloist and orchestra lovingly negotiated the long gradient into silence as the movement ends. The finale’s exciting blend of ardour and eloquence was greeted with enthusiastic applause; no wonder. After several calls Ren Jian treated the audience to a baroque solo that trod the line between halting and eloquence and ended in a cooling stillness.

After the interval came two extracts from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Nocturne seemed rather loud and not fragile enough for a nocturne. The Wedding March was full of an entirely apt pomp although as music it just does not do it for me. In the March, the Tod trumpets rang out once again in raw, starry and straight-talking confidence.

The final piece was the Elgar Enigma Variations – a tough choice as it is in effect a ‘concerto for orchestra’; a test-piece performed in the homeland of the brass band. Everyone is put through their paces and all came out of it well. I had the impression that the musicians had spent the most time preparing this work. The conductor can be proud of his work with them and they with him. Rather like the Brahms, its success is against the intimidating background of hundreds of usually highly polished concert performances, broadcasts and recordings all bearing down on the players. The results were as much of a pleasure as their playing of Sibelius’s Second Symphony a couple of seasons back. The Enigma unfurled to the audience in pretty well all of its fantastical variety. Most notable to me was the dynamic range: from thistledown to fortissimo climactics. Here was Enigma in all its skittering, rollicking, serenity and majesty. OK so we had to do without the organ but no one would have noticed in the face of such a performance.