Autumn concert

Saturday 10 November 2018
Rob Barnett

“Tribute goes to conductor and orchestra for an object lesson in reviving a rarely heard work and doing so with nothing short of magnificence.”

There were three themes to this concert: Spain, aspects of Russia and intensely earnest fantasy. Before that, and given that a special Armistice Day (a century since 11 November 1918) was only 24 hours away, there was a minute’s silence, the Last Post (played by Daniel Gordon) and the National Anthem, through all of which the audience stood.

As for Spain it held court in the first part of the evening. We had a favourite, though not that commonly heard in the concert hall, in the shape of Chabrier’s España. This is Spain through the viewpoint of a Frenchman – not that uncommon. It’s a tricky little piece, combining taut exuberance and intricacy. The orchestra took it carefully; not wanting to be wrong-footed by the criss-cross of Chabrier’s exultant rhythms. It still emerged as richly enjoyable with its unusual complement, including four bassoons. A good start.

After this, a dramatic change of mood and more. Onto the stage, with the conductor, came Simon Desbruslais nursing two trumpets – a standard narrow-bore concert instrument and a wide-bore flugelhorn, darling of the brass band movement. This was for the composer Tim Benjamin’s Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra. The slightly more mellow tone of the flugelhorn was used in the central of three movements. Across the two movements, this modern work left me with the image of a pilgrimage with the pilgrim (trumpet) traversing a desolate and despairing waste-land. The pilgrim succumbs and gives voice in sympathy with the despondency. Less frequently he kicks against it. This is very much a work with orchestra rather than an overt display or heroic conflict piece. Had the composer wanted something like that then he would have scored for a much smaller orchestra or stripped out all but the strings. As it was the band was big and was employed in a big way rather like Gubaidulina’s Offertorium. It’s remarkable that Benjamin also built in at least one moment where the principal trumpet (Lawrence Killian) has a very prominent segment in the score; a generous gesture. The Benjamin concerto opens with whispered chattering figuration almost familiar from Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony and continues in tracks I would liken to a desolate version of Copland’s Quiet City. Rumbling and roiling figures reminded me of similar disconsolate pages from the Swedish composer, Allan Pettersson’s Seventh Symphony. Benjamin’s is a powerful, unrelenting (OK so the central movement is quieter) and dense piece. The soloist has to be, and was, a true professional in, for the most part, having to forsake overt vainglorious heroics of the sort the orchestra and soloist Brian McGinley revelled in for a trumpet concerto by Arutiunian in 2011. This is a very different work. The final pages were full-throated indeed in what did not feel like a concession to standard applause-enlisting concerto heroics. The composer, one of the orchestra’s second violins, was called forward and shared acclaim with the soloist, conductor and the rest of the orchestra.

The Iberian aspect returned before the intermission with a piece of Spanish euphoria by a Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla. Three dances – the very best bits – from the Massine/Picasso ballet The Three Cornered Hat were brilliantly if occasionally splashily done. The silky violin sound registered strongly and made a link back to the Chabrier. It is uproarious stuff and vividly catches deep shade and tender romance. It presents that aspect just as memorably as the strutting, rowdy anarchic marches. The orchestra were up for this and I single out for special praise the spectacularly roiling horns and the fluid tone of the violins, led by Andrew Rostron.

The second part was a wholly Russian affair. Rachmaninov’s Vocalise started life as the last of his 14 Songs Op. 34. It is directed to be sung using any one vowel of the singer’s choosing. What we heard was for orchestra alone; the composer’s own arrangement. It’s typically and bloomingly romantic and is a sort of second cousin to the 18th Variation in the same composer’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The orchestra gave a touching and passionate performance and stayed completely in touch, bar by bar, with the dynamic swell and its interweave of Klimt-like glimmering clouds and stars. Andrew Rostron’s violin solo also stood out complementing and leading an excellent performance which only suffered slightly because, say, ten more violins would have delivered a more telling weight to the string tone.

The concert ended with Prokofiev’s Symphony No 7. How often does that appear at live concerts? The orchestra, by then fully warmed up, gave a high octane reading of the symphony’s four movements. Once again we heard a big orchestra, more than filling the hall’s extended staging and necessitating two of the violins and other instruments having their chairs in the wings of the main hall. The only momentary blemish was a rather glutinous stodgy start to the third movement. This is a work of many episodes all intimately locked together. As for the orchestration it includes five percussionists, plus piano and harp. The music several times gives the impression of the ‘eternal clockwork’ which you hear winding down at the quiet ending. That clockwork off-beat, rhythmic, percussion-dominated ‘signature’ reminds me of a similar effect adopted by Shostakovich for the extended finale of his Fifteenth (and last) Symphony. The expansive, resilient and frankly glorious theme from the first movement has illustrious stamina. The theme returns in true cyclic fashion and full finery in the finale, complete with some buoyant ‘punctuation’ from the trombones to loft the moment even higher than in the first movement. The Seventh Symphony is something of a Cinderella but deserves far more than obscurity. It should be heard just as often as the Classical Symphony from the other end of Prokofiev’s life. Tribute goes to conductor and orchestra for an object lesson in reviving a rarely heard work and doing so with nothing short of magnificence.