Belated rapture from Orchestra Wellington’s “Rachmaninov 1”, but well worth the wait…..

Orchestra Wellington presents:

DVOŘÁK – Serenade for Strings In E Major Op. 22
JENNIFER HIGDON – Violin Concerto 2008
RACHMANINOV – Symphony No. 1 in D Minor Op.13

Amalia Hall (violin)
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Sunday 15th November 2020

Covid-19 has played havoc with many things over 2020, not the least with schedules of music performances, hence the somewhat belated “Rachmaninov 1” title for this concert. Fortunately, the quality of the music and its making seemed unimpaired by any such privations, leaving us grateful all over again for the experience, similar to the feeling engendered by the Orchestra Wellington’s previous concert I’d attended –

Here, I found myself straightaway drawn in by the playing of the programme’s opening work, Antonin Dvořák’s adorable Serenade for Strings – it was all beautifully and sensitively shaped by Marc Taddei and his players, and given flight with the utmost beauty and grace, perhaps ever-so-slightly at the expense of some of the music’s “gruntier” aspects in places such as the finale, but everywhere else for me lovingly reimagining the composer’s sound-world of  intensely poetic feeling. It seemed at times as if we in the audience were eavesdropping on an almost private world of emotion, so tenderly were some of the lines voiced by the players. both in smaller groups and as a whole. The second-movement Waltz made a more impulsive contrast, with much of the string-tones sounding like either rushing water or whispering wind-blown foliage, a real out-of-doors quality. Marc Taddei’s meticulously-wrought transitions between sections to my ears sounded deeply-felt and caring for the music.

The will-‘o-the-wisp-like opening of the third movement began a truly adventuresome narrative, urgent and pent-up with excitement at first, vigorous and joyful, but then afterwards imbued with a longing quality, exemplified by the melody’s wonderfully downward-swooping intervals, and building the anxieties towards relief at the opening’s reprise – all so characterful, here, with the strings lacking only the numbers to fully activate the emotion of those deeply-affecting interval swoops! The slow movement then stole in, the sounds shaping the music’s emotion with real character, the violas in particular touching our hearts with their playing. The middle section was more urgent, more wistful than dark, returning to the main melody, sung in canon by ‘cellos and violins so tenderly, and building up to a rich and gorgeous climax – very satisfying!

The last movement began and ended with a game of chase between upper and lower strings, the syncopations deliciously voiced, and the droll second subject seeming to smile out loud! Its reprise reached upwards and bubbled over with exhilaration before allowing the work’s opening to steal back in like an old friend just before the final, joyously rumbustious payoff! I occasionally imagined still more string tone than we were getting, but the playing’s attack and intensity made up for the lack of numbers and achieved a memorable result. Bravo!

A name known to me (but not, until this evening, her music) was Jennifer Higdon (1962 – ), an American composer who wrote her Violin Concerto in 2008 for violinist Hilary Hahn with many of the virtuoso’s distinctive characteristics as an interpreter in mind (they first met when Hahn was a student in Higdon’s Curtis Institute of music’s 20th Century Music class – in fact the first movement of the concerto was given the name 1726 because it was the Philadelphia street address number of the Institute!). Hearing Hahn perform the Schoenberg Violin Concerto inspired Higdon to write the opening of tonight’s work, with its beautiful, Aeolian-harp-like string harmonics, and by association, the rest of the movement.

This opening sequence suggested to me an awakening, the dream-like reverie of the harmonics quickened into playful exchanges with both solo lines and concerted passages, finally rousing the “noisy kids on the block”, the percussionists, who “let ‘er rip”, thereby encouraging the rest of the orchestra to have its say as well. Amalia Hall’s violin-playing was right on top of the music’s complexities, conveying a sense of dancing with delight at the various interactions, and, aided by conductor Mark Taddei’s superb control of his forces, keeping the exchanges wry and equivocal-sounding in terms of their emotional significance. Episode followed colourful episode, quicksilver turnovers of texture, a mock-march enlivened with triplet rhythm, and brassy shouts calling for reinforcements, resulting in a vigorous toccata-like ensemble strutting its stuff before Hall  tackled an extraordinary sequence of double-stopped intervals such as sevenths, the effect both hair-raising and exhilarating! Gradually the sequences gradually eased in tension as the soloist drew increasingly cantabile-like tones from  instrument, and the work’s opening returned, a magic-sounding “reawakening” of nature which the percussion and winds again joined in with, before allowing the silences to surge softly backwards at the end. It was a journey that left this listener open-mouthed in amazement with both the abundance of musical ideas and their execution…..

The second movement, named “Chaconni”, was the composer’s tribute to the tonal qualities of Hahn’s playing, projecting the idea that her beauty of utterance would inspire solo players in the orchestra to reply in kind. Thus it was here, with the winds setting the scene at the outset for the soloist’s exchanges with solo cello and cor anglais over constantly-murmuring resonances, in places reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’ “Pastoral Symphony”. Such wind-blown sounds from the strings and various solo lines soaring in tandem like birdsong made a beautiful evocation of orchestral tapestry for the violinist to decorate with spontaneous-sounding outpourings. The winds enlivened the music’s trajectories, and the strings unfurled their sails for a few exhilarating moments – but Hall and Taddei were equal to the task of calling their cohorts to order and bid them hold their tones fast and and look at where they had come with the music. So it all became a celebration of being, of “living the moment”, of recognising that something special had been achieved, Hall’s solo violin murmuring the last notes with rapt delicacy.

After this, I felt the finale was less striking,  promising more than it actually seemed to give – being a sucker for the obvious I relished the thought of an Olympic Games-like orgy of excitement in victory and stellar achievement, as both the composer, in interview, and the movement’s title “Fly forward” suggested. In the wake of a “ready, steady…” couple of chords, the music lifted its head and gathered speed, everything very physical  and motoric, with plenty of cumulative excitement along the way punctuated by moments of on-the-spot realignment, allowing those of us  a bit out of condition to “catch up” before the trajectories kicked in again.  However, though the final orchestral tutti generated some steam, it seemed to me as if the “race” was suddenly finished with a lap or two still to go, the suddenness of the ending taking us all by surprise and leaving this listener disconcerted (no pun intended!)…..

Whatever one thought of this movement in isolation, one nevertheless felt exhilarated by the whole, the larger work whose development we had seemed almost to collaborate in by the act of listening! I thought it a fascinating and compulsively-wrought coalescence of the creative process, one which tonight’s incredible soloist, Amalia Hall, seemed to “own” the music in a way the composer would have imagined the work’s dedicatee, Hilary Hahn, would do. Fascinating, too, for me to encounter immediately afterwards, two diametrically-opposed reactions from other people (one a composer) regarding the work, a sure sign of the music’s (and the performance’s) power of engagement – something that simply couldn’t be passed over lightly – a great choice of repertoire for that alone!

The concert’s second half could hardly have been more different to the first’s finely-wrought explorations of poetic sensibility and high spirits (Dvořák) coupled with an act of musical homage by demonstration to a great performer’s skills and salient characteristics as a musician (Higdon). The inspiration for the 24 year-old Sergei Rachmaninov in beginning his First Symphony in 1895 remains something of an enigma – the work’s dedication bore the initials of a beautiful Gypsy woman acquaintance, Anna Lodyzhenskaya, the wife of a friend of the composer,  as well as a biblical quote from Romans 12:19 – “Vengeance is Mine – I will repay” (which Tolstoy used as an epigraph to his novel “Anna Karenina”) – but the symphony itself unequivocally expresses a tragic, pessimistic view of life which was deeply rooted in the composer’s psyche from the beginning. Thanks to an unfortunate first performance in 1897 badly conducted by fellow-composer Alexander Glazunov (who was very possibly drunk), and a vitriolic review from another fellow-composer, Cesar Cui, Rachmaninov experienced a crisis of creative confidence from which I feel he never really recovered as a creative artist. With the possible exception of the final movement of his 1913 oratorio “The Bells”, he never revisited such a blatantly despairing mode to such a remarkably focused and potent extent as in this work.

I imagined this music would be a gift for the combination of talents of Marc Taddei and Orchestra Wellington, and so it proved, the players as per usual punching far above their weight (effectively demonstrated by the platform’s surprisingly vast empty space at the rear of the violins, a space the NZSO would have easily filled with a bigger pool of players!) and tellingly substituting sharp-edged focus for sheer massiveness of sound in the biggest orchestral moments of the work. Throughout the first movement I was repeatedly taken aback by the richness of the string-led climaxes generated from so relatively few players, ably backed by winds and brasses, with the percussion playing its part in the big moments, though I thought the cymbal rolls a tad over-loud as “colour” in that wonderful Rimsky-Korsakov-like section leading to the reprise of the opening motif, however much their incisiveness contributed to the impact of the big moments.

The Scherzo movement here evoked a world of phantoms and shadows, the urgency and sense of agitation reinforced by rapier-like strokes from brass and percussion, and a trenchant solo from leader Justine Cormack, with everything suggested rather than stated outright, and adding to the unease and half-lit nightmarish quality of the music – the strings capture a certain hopelessness in their “dying fall” phrase, as from the “inferno” sequences of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”.  By contrast the slow movement brought out the work’s first evocations of stillness, with the strings, followed by the clarinet and the other winds, creating an unmistakably Russian ambience which, on the surface, seemed “ghosted” by the shades of Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov, but then introduced both darker, and longer-breathed strands of deep, tragic feeling. The candour and grim purpose of these utterances made a perfect foil for the plaintiveness of the various solo strings whose tones were inexorably built up to a heartfelt lyrical climax,  winds and brass counterpointing the strings’ fervour with portentous reminiscences of the opening theme (the horns superb, here!), before allowing the sounds to subside, bringing about an uneasy close, despite the beauty of the clarinets’ playing in thirds at the end.

Vigorous, thrusting orchestral statements opened the finale, giving way to ceremonial fanfares punctuated by percussion, and answered by strings reiterating the opening rapier-thrusts, Taddei opening the orchestral throttle to great effect, the strings singing their hearts out and the winds, brass and percussion replying with frenzied outbursts. Some glorious playing from the oboe brought the other winds out from hiding, the strings joining in the lament-like figurations and seeming to placate the sufferings – but suddenly, the basses transformed the resigned mood into one of  defiance, the impulses building up to conflagrate the orchestral textures like wildfire, Taddei encouraging his players to stampede wildly and excitingly towards a sudden, fearful abyss-like silence. A pity the climactic resonating gong-stroke was activated a fraction late – it surely should have sounded in unison with the final note of the orchestral tutti, resonating in the gaping maw of the silence’s empty space.

What followed – one of the great orchestral perorations in Russian music – rendered in sound the grim “Vengeance is mine – I will repay” inscription on the score to overwhelming effect, the players giving what their conductor was asking for and more besides, lacking the sheer weight of some other performances I’d experienced, with greater numbers of players, but rivalling any in intensity and focus of sound – a thrilling experience!





A memorable debut by a new ensemble – “The Capital Band” presents works by Mozart and Schubert

The Capital Band presents

MOZART – Symphony No.29 in A Major K. 218
SCHUBERT – String Quartet in D Minor D. 810 “Death and the Maiden” (arr. string orchestra)

The Capital Band
Music Director – Douglas Harvey

Vogelmorn Hall, Vennell St., Brooklyn, Wellington

Saturday, 5th September, 2020

A warm welcome to “The Capital Band” and its conductor/Music Director, Douglas Harvey, on the spirited showing made by the musicians during their first Wellington concert on Saturday evening! At a time when Covid-19 is wreaking havoc for organisations planning concerts of live music-making, any fresh endeavours in such a respect are welcomed, but even more so when presented with the kind of enthusiasm and verve that greeted we of the audience, gathered in a seemly, socially-distanced manner in Brooklyn’s charming and atmospheric Vogelmorn Hall (a new venue for me as an audience member!). Each of the two works programmed were given in a way that conveyed a kind of essence appropriate to the spirit of the occasion, and certainly left this listener in a buoyantly satisfied frame of mind relating to the overall experience.

There may be others who, like me at first, might imagine an ensemble with the name “The Capital Band” as consisting of strong, jovial and fearless brass band-people, ready even to try their hand at reimagining and reworking classical symphonies and romantic string quartets! However, reading “between the lines” of the ensemble’s online post advertising the concert did, I admit, seem to indicate (even in this most remarkable of all possible worlds) that the musicians were classical orchestral players – in fact, (and here, I quote) “an innovative and exciting group of younger semi-professional, amateur, and non-fulltime musicians and comprises current and former members of Orchestra Wellington, the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra, the National Youth Orchestra, the New Zealand School of Music ensembles, and various other orchestras in the greater Wellington region”. I recognised at least two of the players as members of the previous year’s NZSM Orchestra, though most of the faces were new to me.

Ruminating that “strong, jovial and fearless” could well be synonymic with “innovative and exciting”, I settled down to enjoy the concert, pleasurably anticipating the strains of the opening of one of my all-time favourite symphonies, one representing an acme of youthful symphonic achievement on the part of its composer, the eighteen year-old Wolfgang Mozart, whose adorable Symphony No.29 in A Major K.201 began the evening’s music. Unlike other “Salzburg” symphonies written around this same time by Mozart, most notably the explosive G Minor K.183, this work begins gently, with a gracefully rising set of octave leaps proclaiming the simplicity of absolute mastery – I remember being left open-mouthed when I first heard this music almost fifty years previously, and still marvel today at its focused utterance, whatever tempo its life-pulse is measured at by different interpreters.

I learnt the work through a 1960s recording made by Otto Klemperer with the New Philharmonia Orchestra of London – a reading whose first movement gestures seemed more like implacable movements of heavenly bodies in the firmament than expressions of youthful energy – even though Klemperer’s performances of the Minuet and Finale were as spirited as any, the latter with magnificently al fresco horns resounding across the vistas. The slow movement’s progress was also stately, though exquisitely shaped, with the coda marked by full, rich wind-tones answered by strings in like manner. For years afterwards I couldn’t listen to any other performance of this music, as each seemed trite and superficial compared with Klemperer’s profundity and substance. Then a recording conducted by Benjamin Britten (a gifted Mozartean) with the English Chamber Orchestra seemed to me to triumphantly marry Klemperer’s strength with more urgency, paving the way for my listening to become more accustomed to lighter and swifter readings of the work without experiencing a feeling of some essential quality being lost.

Here, with a performance by “the Band” that celebrated the music’s youthful vigour rather than seeking any profundity or timelessness, my “born again” attitudes were given a splendid going-over by Douglas Harvey’s and his players’ spirited reading of the opening movement –  a case of “Thus, though we cannot make our sun / stand still, yet we will make him run”! The playing brought out all the dynamic contrasts one could want, as well as allowing the “middle voices” of the work to speak – there was a certain rough-hewn quality about some of the passagework, with the lead-up to the second subject in the repeat particularly “grainy” in effect; and some of the staccato work I thought blunt almost to a fault (arguably a matter of taste in places, of course!). By contrast, the slow movement had plenty of grace and charm , with flutes here substituting for oboes (and doing a wonderful job, it needs to be said), their held notes together with those of the horns “warming the textures” beautifully, the string phrases allowed their “internal voices” effect with ease and naturalness of flow. I actually wanted the winds to be given a bit more time to enjoy their mid-movement trill, but the players made the most of their “moment” at the movement’s end, the strings answering in splendid accord.

A mischievous and sprightly Minuet featured some deliciously saucy flute-and-horn unisons at the end of each string-sentence – very rustic and unequivocal, like a disapproving village policeman’s “Ere! – Wot’s all this, then?” By contrast the Trio’s repeated, gracefully “swooping” string phrase was charmingly “choreographed” by some of the players, putting their all into it! The finale was all bluster and dust, Harvey and the players going for broke, the scurried string figurations excitingly executed, and the horns in particular having a ball with their “Yoicks! – tally-ho!” calls ringing out, the occasional “cracked” note merely adding to the excitement of the chase! I loved the “He said damn!” chattering of the divided strings in the second finale episode, the second violins doing particularly well in taking the lead during the reprise. Some concluding energetic unisons, exuberant fanfares and farewell flourishes, and it was all over, to great acclaim!

After the interval the string players returned for an ensembled performance of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet, one I thought must have been the Mahler arrangement (though unfinished by him and completed by David Matthews) – but I’ve since been told this particular version was an arrangement made by the Capital Band players themselves. Having never heard the string orchestra version before I was amazed by how “effective” it all sounded, the opening particularly arresting by dint of the string numbers and, in this performance, the attack and commitment of the players. The ensemble frayed a little during the second subject’s quicker sequences, though the players did better with the “inverted theme” passages that followed. Some of the lines were given to solo strings in places, which added to the music’s overall light and shade, and making the reintroduction of the opening all the more dramatic. And the agitated coda and its dissolution into shadow and mystery was most confidently and securely negotiated – all very spooky!

I loved the “heartbroken” aspect of the slow movement’s opening, the textures made almost Tchaikovskian with those additional strings, the “faintly beating heart” impression all the more palpable, the melody line beautifully nuanced, light hand-in-glove with shadow. The ensuing variations featured a significant amount of solo playing, the players involved splendidly negotiating the sometimes torturous melodic twists of the various lines – and I was taken as never before by the similarity of one of the variations (in a minor-key way) to a corresponding sequence in Brahms’ St Antoni Variations! Another impressive sequence was a throbbing pedal-point episode which gradually built in intensity, before dissipating in a halo of lovely snow-bright harmonies at the movements end. The heavy-footed Brahmsian syncopations of the scherzo’s opening sounded like great fun, here, giving way to a Trio whose grace and elegance seemed worlds apart, even if the violins were tested by the high-lying passages in places.

The galloping rhythms of the finale again brought a strongly committed physical response, readily conveying a sense of headlong flight, and tellingly interrupted by the heroic stance of the second subject, the playing strong and unyielding! And both violin sections did well with the contrasting rushing figures (1sts) and the singing lines (2nds), coming together to catch the music’s incredible drive forwards into the music’s vortex-like heart, and through the opening’s recapitulation into a fragmented amalgam of desperate, fugitive-like impulses, something which only the white heat of the coda’s kinetic energies could hope to quell – the peformers found incredible surges of elemental feeling at the end, giving their all.

At the end, conductor Douglas Harvey thanked us all for attending the concert, the musicians then applauding us most heartily for our support! An encore was a “lullaby” a piece whose provenance I forgot to ask about – but it sounded as though it could have been something written by Aarvo Part, simple voicings expressed in radiant. luminous, open-textured lines – all part of a most impressive first outing by this new ensemble, of which we will hopefully hear a great deal more!

Strong, exemplary student performances of string orchestra masterpieces

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts 
New Zealand School of Music String Ensemble, conducted by Martin Riseley

Handel: Concerto Grosso in D, Op 6 No 5
Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings in C, Op 48

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 19 September, 12:15 pm

I confess I was unprepared for the actual nature of this concert, entitled string students of the NZSM. Naively I’d thought of a string(?) of solos, duets and threesomes, perhaps a string quartet. I was a bit late, arriving as Martin Riseley finished his introduction to the recital, and launched into Handel’s Concerto Grosso in D, Op 6 No 5, inspiring playing that sounded as if it was a prelude to a highly dramatic opera, perhaps not even by Handel.

I’d missed hearing Riseley’s comment about Handel’s borrowing tunes from a contemporary, Gottlieb Muffat, in this and others of his works, a practice that was common and evidently acceptable at that time. Muffat was Handel’s contemporary whose career was at the Austrian court. It explained the impression I got that Handel’s fingerprints were not very conspicuous, certainly in some parts of the work. The Introduction was marked by vivid dotted rhythms, boisterous rather than elegant, while a different energy infused the fugal Allegro that drew vigorous playing from the very distinct concertino and ripieno sections: the concertino parts were taken cleanly and strongly by Nick Majic on first violin, and Sarang Roberts and Ellen Murfitt on second violin; Rebecca Warnes played the concertino cello part.

The Presto was an even more dynamic movement, with the concertino handling the triplet quavers while the ripieno maintained the strong pulse, with its very emphatic first note of each animated and light-spirited triplet. The Largo was a long time coming, but it seemed to speak in a more familiar Handelian language, the last note leaving it unresolved, awaiting the arrival of another Allegro, and further demonstration of the players’ energy that Riseley succeeded in maintaining splendidly. And the Menuett, rather than any kind of Presto Finale, was a calmly played, pensive movement that ended in an elegant, civilised manner.

So I was thoroughly impressed by the ensemble’s competence (only minor flaws of no importance), and looked forward with confidence to the different challenges of the Tchaikovsky. It’s symphonic in length, and so, the Handel having taken about 20 minutes, the concert ended around 1.15pm; and such was their enjoyment of a splendid hearing, right to the end, that scarcely anyone left, convinced as I was that it’s one of the composer’s real masterpieces.

They captured the varied phases of the first movement with distinction, often sounding more like a professional ensemble than a group of students.

Riseley again set the tone and the spirit with big gestures that emphasised rhythm, as if the notes were written in BOLD. I approved. Though there are distinct virtues in taking some parts pretty slowly, such as the Introduction – Andante non troppo, and particularly, the end of the Elegy and the rapturous, almost silent start of the Finale; and these were carried off well.

The Waltz used to be much played on its own, and I’m surprised not to hear it occasionally, removed from its family, on RadioNZ Concert, which now specialises in dismembering substantial pieces of music, for fear of frightening listeners with a 2-minute attention span.

This was no Karajan performance, and no one would have expected to hear a specially subtle or immaculate performance. But it was a very fine student effort, captured the essentials, and dealt with them with confidence, sensitivity and accuracy. In truth, it was probably their level of gusto and energy that masked very successfully what blemishes there were in ensemble and intonation.

It’s a long time since I heard the Serenade in live performance, and I was deeply grateful; reminded me what a great work it really is.

Bow at St.Andrews – tightening the strings….

Bow String Ensemble

Musical Director – Rachel Hyde

Concertmaster – Kathryn Maloney

GRIEG – Two Elegiac Melodies Op.34  / GORECKI – Three Pieces in the Old Style

TCHAIKOVSKY – Serenade in C Major for Strings Op.48

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday, 10th July, 2011

This concert was the Bow String Ensemble’s second outing, following its inaugural concert last October, also at St.Andrew’s. On that occasion the new ensemble made an admirable job of the concert’s first half, but, given the rehearsal time available to amateur players, simply couldn’t do justice to what was practically a full-length program. The result resembled what I thought was very much a concert of two halves, disconcertingly so when setting one against the other. Happily, this time round, a less ambitious, though still demanding program produced a far more consistent and satisfying overall result for all concerned.

Being an ex-percussionist rather than a string player myself, I find a certain fascination, even mystique about string playing, all to do with the sound produced by ensembles. Some of the notes and phrases produced by this group in places during the course of the concert were of “sit-up-and-take-notice” quality – and not always in passages where one would expect a mellifluous sound as a certainty. All the “sections” of the ensemble had wonderful moments, places where the tones had unanimity of focus and the phrases either “flowed like oil” or tugged at the heartstrings.

That there was also, especially in the larger work of the concert, the Tchaikovsky Serenade, a rawness of intonation and a few out-of-sync passages could be easily put down to lack of rehearsal time. But, unlike the struggle experienced by the ensemble last year to make the Dvorak Serenade properly “speak”, I felt that, for all the occasional roughnesses we were given a performance of the Tchaikovsky that truly captured the music’s heart. It was more than getting the notes right – I thought the players’ tones conveyed the character of parts of the score so well and whole-heartedly in places, as to suggest that, with more rehearsal time, the group’s potential to realize performances of comparable through-quality would result, to everybody’s enhanced satisfaction.

As with last year’s performance of the “Holberg” Suite, Grieg’s music proved an excellent concert-opener, on this occasion with the Two Elegiac Melodies Op.34. Easily dismissed as “lighter” fare, they’re actually as characteristically heartfelt and richly-layered as any music by the composer, and reward the detailed, sensitively-nuanced playing encouraged by Rachel Hyde with a most attractive and readily-grasped lyricism – they are, of course, transcriptions for strings of two songs by the composer, “Spring” and “Heart Wounds”.

I thought the ensemble’s tones at the outset had a grainy, nostalgic quality, tightly held, with dynamics controlled beautifully throughout, giving the feeling of every note having been “considered”, so that the accompaniments “told” as appropriately as did the leading lines – I also liked the unmoulded sounds made by some of the notes when “leaned into” – they had a marked visceral impact which contrasted well with the “other-worldliness” of some of the more hushed passages. “Heart Wounds” seemed more inward a piece than “Spring”, one that I suspect is more difficult to “sing” because of its chromatically-inflected melody line. This is music which sounds appropriately “cold”, with flecks of sunlight in places like the tiny ‘cello counterpoint, accompanying the melody’s turning to the major key, and clouding over again when the violas introduce the tune’s second-time though. Focusing upon these nicely-realised detailings may seem as if this review might be losing sight of the forest for the trees – but they’re part of what made the performances of this music by the ensemble resonate in the memory long after the last sounds had died away.

In her spoken introduction to the concert conductor Rachel Hyde had described the three Gorecki pieces as being “lovely, but with some really scrunchy sounds in places” – and so it proved, with the last of the trio of pieces transforming an elegiac beginning into a bell-like threnody, some claustrophobic harmonies providing the crunchy bits as promised, relished by musicians and audience alike, as the sounds alternated between outward brazenness and inwardly-sounded echoes. The first two pieces were nicely differentiated, firstly an oscillating, ritual-like processional not unlike parts of the famous Symphony No.3 (“Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”); and then a cheerful folk-dance, very out-of-doors in feeling, richly textured with dynamics that dipped, swooped and soared – the ensemble seemed to take to the different moods of the music like a duck to water.

So the Tchaikovsky Serenade was splendidly prepared for by these goings-on, and the grand, dignified opening – so ceremonial and heart-on-sleeve at one and the same time – didn’t disappoint. The tones may have been close to raw in places as the players again “leaned into” their bowings, but the result was appropriately heartfelt, especially throughout the questioning repetitions leading up to the allegro. The playing brought out the music’s Italianate quality, Rachel Hyde’s tempi and general control perfectly gauged to allow the ‘cellos time to make something of their counterpoints, and the violins and violas elbow-room for their chromatic back-and-forth figurations. The Mozartean exchanges kept their rhythmic poise,though intonation suffered in the exposed dovetailing as the music turned for home just after the pizzicati colorings – the players were much happier with all this the second time round in a lower key (C as opposed to G), a sense of real enjoyment coming though, reflected in the “juiciness” of the playing of the opening’s reprise at the end.

The Waltz, one of Tchaikovsky’s most well-known, was by turns forthright and yielding, again with that attractive “Italianate” quality so well caught by the violins in thirds, though the minor-key episode that followed sounded relatively scrappy – fortunately, amends were made by the warmth of  the major-key recap., the violas having a fine time with their counterpoint (it must be such a joy to play this work!), and the coda brought off most enchantingly by all – the pizzicati ending got a special burst of delighted applause!

I loved the Elegie all over again in this performance – a beautifully “caught” opening, the tones coloured and weighted to perfection, and the last phrase “dug into” most satisfyingly – the following pizzicato sounded a bit “muddy” at first, then cleared, and the violins started the melody confidently, seemed to “lose their nerve” momentarily at the first rallentando, but then pick up again in support of the ‘cellos. Throughout I thought the performance poised, open and nicely charged with feeling – Tchaikovsky’s candidly-open “weeping” towards the end brought out some less-than-ingratiating tones, though the players recovered for the coda, giving us a most atmospheric, “Russian-sounding” final chord.

Straight into the finale, then, songful at the beginning, and with energy and bite to the dance at the allegro (the second violins couldn’t match the confidence of the firsts in the opening exchanges, but the pizzicati leading to the second subject were full of life and bounce!). Though the ‘cellos sounded a little unhappy with their theme, they then dug into the development with gusto, Hyde and the players keeping the momentum going splendidly, the up-and-down scales rocketing with energy just before the grand return to the work’s opening. Most deservedly, conductor and orchestra got a great ovation from the “in-the-round” audience, Hyde inviting comments at the end and getting one or two bravely-delivered contributions!

A quick word regarding Rachel Hyde’s invitation to children present to move around during the performance of the music – while laudable in theory I did find the audience movement distracting during the playing, and wondered whether other people also found that it actually “took” from the concert’s musical ambience – one can be warmly welcoming of children at concerts by way of dispelling a lot of the usual “stuffiness” that people associate with classical music performance, but as this wasn’t anywhere presented as a “young audience” event, I didn’t think that offering people carte blanche of movement was entirely appropriate. Perhaps I’m the one being overly stuffy, now, but I still feel that somewhere there’s middle ground with all of this that can strike a balance at concerts between enjoyment and respect, constraint and comfort – and not just for youthful concertgoers!