Purely Classical

25 March 2023
Rob Barnett

“Conductor Nicholas Concannon Hodges and Todmorden Orchestra – a true community orchestra – have a reputation for exploring music realms seemingly undreamt of by the UK’s great professional orchestras.”

Edward Elgar – Overture ‘Cockaigne’ (1901)
Carl Nielsen – Flute Concerto (1926)
Johannes Brahms – Symphony no. 2 (1877)

Adding zest to its 2022/23 season the Todmorden Orchestra, about 60-strong on this occasion, launched this concert with Elgar’s highly variegated and Rubens-rich overture. ‘Cockaigne’ is more a dissolutely coloured and obstreperously noble tone-poem than an overture to anything. The concert was launched to the usual full house and this challenging choice of opener was given with great enthusiasm.

It was certainly spirited, if with rough edges, rather as if the players were warming up to the evening. On the other hand there were magnificent moments including a fruitily elite solo trumpet passage that seemed to look to Yorkshire’s brass band laurels as well as making a satisfying impression. It would now be good at a future concert to hear the orchestra in Elgar’s ‘In the South’.

Conductor Nicholas Concannon Hodges and Todmorden Orchestra – a true community orchestra – have a reputation for exploring music realms seemingly undreamt of by the UK’s great professional orchestras. With an ensemble now slimmed down the wind benches were honed to two horns, one trombone, pairs of woodwind along with the usual complement of strings. The latter are placed, in this hall, are on the same level as the audience.

Young Portuguese flautist Frederico Paixão – evidently a star not so much in the making as made – was a confident and beguilingly commanding presence in the Nielsen. Every player seemed to enter immersively into the mercurially tempestuous¸ buffeting, serene and serenading flute concerto. This technically challenging two-movement score has the eerie, the Pan-like, the breezy, the bluff and the catchy holding court pari passu.

It is a very different piece from the same composer’s often chilly Clarinet Concerto. One wonders what the other concertos would have been like had Nielsen been spared to complete his project for writing concertos for each of the members of the Copenhagen wind quintet. That aside, the flute work has more in common with the Danish composer’s Second and Fourth Symphonies than with the Third and Fifth.

The orchestra gave every appearance of being extremely well rehearsed. The score went down well and there was even applause between the two movements. Memorable moments included the soloist’s dialogue with the clarinet which felt spontaneous rather than calculated as if the clarinet had been beguilingly incited to respond to the flute.

Brahms’ Second Symphony rounded things off after the intermission. It’s not my favourite Brahms Symphony – the third and fourth are preferred – but rather like the Mahler 4 Todmorden Orchestra did a couple of years back – it was good to be jolted out of my complacency. The Brahms brought the orchestra back to much fuller forces including four French horns and tuba.

In the first movement – one of Brahms’ three Allegros in this work – the famous lullaby was most artfully and heart-easingly shaped and played. I recall especially the way the flute embellished the lilting strings. Not for the last time the well-balanced woodwind nicely rounded off the long descent at the end of the movement with collectively a natural sense of melodic fall and inevitability.

While soothing, the second movement suffered somewhat from curdled textures. The gem-like dancing Allegro grazioso (III) raised the spirits (oboe solo in particular) and smiles, recalling the gentler Hungarian Dances. As throughout, the conductor’s way with Brahms’ pauses within the movements was especially well judged – never too brief; never over-extended. The finale continued the fine work with cobwebs blown away, great waterfalls of wind playing and euphoric energy overarching all.

Rob Barnett