Music for a century

Saturday 16 November 2019
Rob Barnett

“The orchestra were well up to form and this was obvious from many a quiet detail as well as the moments of rapturous upheaval.”

Tragedy, fairy-tales and childhood visions in Yorkshire
Malcolm Arnold – Overture: Peterloo (1967)
Igor Stravinsky – Firebird Suite (1919)
Gustav Mahler – Symphony No 4 (1901)

His orchestral dances – one set for each of the UK’s countries – show that the British composer Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) was apt to respond to associations and moods. The ‘great and the good’ were quick to recognise this so it is no surprise that Arnold’s Peterloo overture was commissioned from him by the TUC. It is not one of his finest works but it’s certainly a pungent and craftily sentimental one.

In a very well attended concert the Todmorden orchestra pulled no punches in this Ives-like evocation of the massacre on Manchester’s St Peter’s Fields in 1819. The overture has become something of a staple and I have noted an earlier performance in Manchester Cathedral in 2012. Sir Tim Rice even provided an oration to accompany the music and had this premiered at the Proms in 2014. Last year there was a Mike Leigh film; it might seem that he beat Ken Loach to the draw – not that there was a race. The Arnold score dates from 1967 and was written during his years living in Cornwall – the years that also bore The Padstow Lifeboat and the Cornish Dances. In Todmorden the orchestra gave effective voice to the long-breathed quiet anthem that opens and closes the piece. In between, they celebrated prolonged bedlam in which the side-drum hammers away (as in Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony) in what seems like an effort to halt the bloodily tumultuous proceedings.

One of Stravinsky’s little suites appeared in the orchestra’s last concert. This time conductor Nicholas Concannon Hodges had the 1919 version of the suite from Stravinsky’s Diaghilev ballet The Firebird. The music is a showpiece but a showpiece of substance that is both brilliant and poetically moving. The orchestra were well up to form and this was obvious from many a quiet detail as well as the moments of rapturous upheaval. To take just one example there are two sections where celesta and xylophone are heard in mirrored partnership. They were heard in perfect simultaneity; such attention to detail.

After the intermission came Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. This is one of Mahler’s most lightly seraphic visions. Its alpine glow and unrushed bloom were extremely well caught in an epic performance that was never breathless. Everything seemed a tense yet languid prelude to Thérèse Wincent’s singing of the final German-language setting of ‘Das Himmlische Leben’; a slight shame that the sung words and translation were not in the programme book. The innocence of this child’s vision of heaven brought the evening to a nicely balanced downbeat close. If you are used to the sort of magnificent Mahlerian hullabaloo that ends some of his symphonies this is the antithesis. There was some risk-taking in choosing this symphony to bring the concert to a close but I am glad that risk was taken.