Sunday, 17 December 2017
A DAMP, cold November afternoon offered no encouragement to traipse into Reading — the cramped antique seating arrangements in the venue didn’t help — but making the effort was exceptionally well rewarded.
Carl Neilsen’s descriptive Helios Overture, written in 1903 and inspired by a stay in Athens, is effectively a tone poem about the rising and setting of the sun.
The piece stands or falls mainly on the ability of the horns to depict dawn at the beginning and dusk at the end of the work. The Henley Symphony Orchestra’s well-balanced horn section did the job beautifully.
The sun’s progression to its zenith requires a gradual crescendo through some delicious key changes, followed by a long diminuendo to the point where darkness descends.
Maestro Ian Brown controlled this process admirably, bringing out little flashes of light from each section when needed.
For Max Bruch’s first Violin Concerto the orchestra was joined by Callum Smart, a young winner of many prestigious music prizes, who gave a surprisingly mature interpretation of this famous work.
All too often virtuosi who should know better prey on the audience’s emotions by playing around with the tempo and drawing out the agony with little regard to the significance and beauty of the substantial orchestral contribution. Mr Smart took a more balanced view. His performance was measured, savouring every note, and getting a rich tone from his beautiful instrument.
Maestro Brown reciprocated, responding to every nuance and bringing in the players accurately for all the difficult handovers from soloist to orchestra. It was a true partnership and a worthy performance.
Experts agree that Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No 7 is, musically speaking, his greatest opus — though not his most popular one.
It is a passionate, colourful and weighty work in which the strings contribute the passion, the woodwind add colour and the brass and tympani provide the weight and precision that keeps the whole enterprise moving forward powerfully.
The higher strings, who earlier seemed to have difficulty in getting out of bed as the sun arose in the Helios Overture, must have been saving themselves for this symphony. They gave it everything they had. The whole string section at last established itself as a unified, even-toned and disciplined body. They swayed together. They played together.
Dvorak writes brilliantly for the woodwind, who also found their corporate identity in this performance. The flutes were the best soloists. The clarinets exhibited lovely warm tones but needed more edge for their solos to carry. The oboes and bassoons were consistently reliable.
The brass and tympani, disciplined and thoroughly professional, should be congratulated for producing many powerful and thrilling moments without drowning the rest of the orchestra.
Everybody managed to save something for the thrilling conclusion, which sent a nice tingle up and down the spine.
Maestro Brown clearly had a very clear vision of how he wanted this work performed and he drew it forth most ably. It was consistent, exciting and thoroughly satisfying.
14 November 2016
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