Spring concert

Saturday 11 March 2017
Rob Barnett

“Vitality and ambition are hard-wired into these Todmorden concerts.”

Vitality and ambition are hard-wired into these Todmorden concerts. As for the orchestra they were on very fine form notwithstanding some fleetingly disorientating off-piste swerves from the French horn section – a section that also had its moments in the sun.

The music of Jean Sibelius predominated; two fairly substantial early works in one concert is quite something and very welcome. These works of the 1890s are familiar enough – the foot-tapping Karelia Suite in particular. The sense and pleasure of the suite was well conveyed. Among the delights were the woodwind including the cor anglais in the Ballade movement and the flute in the Alla Marcia. Todmorden Orchestra can take pride and pleasure in having such players in their midst and they are not alone. The central Ballade with its pre-echoes of the quieter pages in Kullervo was superbly done. The hushed playing at its start was strikingly atmospheric even if at this dynamic the music has to contend with the bar’s refrigerator whir; noticeable also in the Symphony. Muffling for that piece of old technology should be part of any improvement programme for the hall.

Delius’s slow-burn, nostalgic yet always passionate Walk to the Paradise Garden was most lovingly yet relentlessly sculpted. Its many soloistic pages were gloriously done. Especially notable again were the woodwind but the whole string section also. You could almost see the dappled scenes with shafts of sunlight catching motes of dust.

Then came the late Master of the Queen’s Music’s An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise. The conductor entered the hall via the audience main aisle for a change. This was to signal an unusual work and one light years from Peter Maxwell Davies’ wilder extremes of the 1960s. This piece came from his accessible style alongside such glittery scores as Mavis from Las Vegas and such simple moving pieces as Farewell to Stromness. The culture of PMD’s beloved Orcadian home was breathed most realistically and freshly into these pages. The title gives a good indication of what we were to hear and the whiskey fumes can almost be inhaled. The Scottish flavour of the writing is undeniable although Orcadians are not necessarily to be thought of as entirely Scottish — too much Nordic DNA. It’s a convivial piece, turbulent and opening with a wild sliding scree of notes. The music pitches and heaves and also works as a most demanding concerto for orchestra with many ferocious passages which were well carried off. There are flying and whooping echoes of other works too: inevitably Arnold’s Tam O’Shanter but also Roy Harris’s Folksong Symphony and the ‘great sneeze’ from Kodaly’s Hary Janos. At the close the bagpipe soloist, Fraser Fifield, who processed into the hall, is given pages that touch on the instrument’s romantic soul rather than its traditional accustomed fare. This deft, utterly charming and quietly spoken player – in tartan regalia – treated the audience to two encores. One was on low pipe – a soulful baritonal instrument rich in highland mists and sorrows – and a foot-tapping bagpipe solo. It would be good to hear him in a classical work again, perhaps Aloys Fleischmann’s Clare’s Dragoons?

After the interval came a memorable Sibelius First Symphony which follows up on an equally good Second Symphony which this team did so well in March 2014. The conductor and orchestra clearly revel in their romantic Sibelius. The roaring Tapiola-like gales in the second movement were remarkable and the Scherzo had the pulse racing. The piled-high climactic romantic convulsions of the Finale brought the house down and the orchestra’s northern brass traditions were borne on high.

Not sure who was behind these repertoire choices but well done and let’s hope they might chance their arm with Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony and Pohjola’s Daughter.