Music for autumn

Saturday 11 November 2017
Rob Barnett

“The opening pages for solo bassoon handing over to solo clarinet held the audience in the palm of the orchestra’s hand.”

Todmorden, a town in the Upper Calder Valley, in West Yorkshire is about 17 miles from Manchester. It is the home of its own orchestra. Its concerts are given in the exotic Victorian opulence of the Todmorden Town Hall.

The ambience of this orchestra’s concerts, which are fully attended, underscores that this is a community orchestra. It amply rewards the pride, confidence and financial support it receives from Todmorden Town Council which also met a substantial part of the costs of the new tiered staging used at this concert.

Mainstream classical repertoire made up this concert but it was not an entirely central-core selection. The Brahms overture could easily have been the Tragic’s companion, the Academic Festival which the orchestra played in 2014. The Tragic is more of a turbulently protesting tone-poem than anything else. As for the Dvorak, the audience had the pleasure of hearing the concerto for violin rather than the cello. To break completely free the programme could have gone for Dvorak’s Piano Concerto but then we would have been denied hearing violinist Michael Foyle. In any event I cannot recall ever encountering the delightful Dvorak violin concerto at a live concert.

Brahms’ overture had some rough-hewn passages but was strong on the score’s rocking tension. The work’s growl and turbulence, which has parallels in the First Symphony and First Piano Concerto, was well put across. The squat tone of the horns and the darkling glow of the strings en masse were satisfying. Cohesion was well sustained although the louder passages were rowdy or vaguely defined.

The Dvorak introduced the confident and capable soloist Michael Foyle who laid into the concerto with a will. The orchestra, reduced in size from the Brahms, were now well and truly warmed-up. Once again the horns and trumpets were on triumphant form; no trombones or tuba, of course. The conjoined first and second movements were all quicksilver and caramel and trippingly done. Mr Foyle’s violin sang out well, although at the start, after that commanding jaw-jutting statement, he was rather swamped by the volume of the orchestra; at least he was from the back of the balcony. His tone was splendidly ample and well nourished rather than slender. The whirling finale was nothing short of exciting. This is a fascinating work with a delightful demeanour rather than a contest of the passions. I do hope that the orchestra conductor and Michael Foyle will be tempted to make a return fixture with, say, the Glazunov, Schoeck or Ivanovs concertos which have qualities similar to the Dvorak. Nicholas Concannon Hodges proves, time after time, that his choice of soloists is sound and rising stars must surely see him and Todmorden as a sure route to a wider career.

After the interval came the Tchaikovsky. The orchestra was now back to a very full complement. Right from the start Mr Hodges and the orchestra pinned their “articles of Faith” to the wall. Here was a performance full of transfixing character and, rather as with the Dvorak, there was no inclination for the attention to drift. Highlights outnumbered moments when things slipped their moorings. Better mention that the last few pages of the first movement and several minutes of the second fell below the orchestra’s best with an errant swerve amid the horns (over string pizzicato) and a vinegary smear from the lower strings. That out of the way the highlights piled in, one after another. The opening pages for solo bassoon handing over to solo clarinet held the audience in the palm of the orchestra’s hand. The super-heated up-draughts of the massed strings in the first and third movements and their sobbing concentrated power in the finale were superbly carried off as was some rampant and romping brass – always a Todmorden accolade. The work for the flutes should also not pass without note. With generally very fine ensemble playing this was one of those performances where the listener was simply swept along and gripped page after page.

This utterly enjoyable Pathétique had me hoping that the orchestra and conductor’s ambitions will take them to other works that would fit their gleaming track-record. I would ask them to consider three pieces. There’s Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini with its scorching violin whirlwinds, brass tornadoes and seductive clarinet solo, all of which are echoed in the TSO’s Pathétique. Another piece for which they have emphatically convincing credentials is Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances – part concerto for orchestra and part symphony. Then again, if they are feeling really adventurous – and I hope they are – why not one of the brilliant great British symphonies of the 1930s. Let them try either the Moeran in G minor or the primary colours of Bax’s triumphantly barbaric Fifth Symphony. If Havant can give us the Dyson symphony and Slaithwaite the George Lloyd Sixth why should these works be off the menu for the Todmorden Symphony Orchestra?