Tuesday, 09 August 2022

Unashamedly romantic music-making

UNDER the tireless, enthusiastic and consistent musical direction of Philip Ellis, over a period of a quarter of

UNDER the tireless, enthusiastic and consistent musical direction of Philip Ellis, over a period of a quarter of a century, the West Forest Sinfonia has become one of Berkshire’s brightest cultural gems.

This concert was unashamedly romantic in content from start to finish. The Brahms Variations on the St Anthony Chorale was an excellent start, the stately theme presented by a perfectly balanced wind section. It is not often realised that the eight short movements which follow not only display an impressive range of ways of altering the melody and its harmonies, but also hark back to the original styles of their composition. Enough was held in reserve for the finale, egged on by a magnificent horn quartet.

Then the orchestra was joined by the pianist Samantha Ward to present Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto. This work, written in 1957, lacks some of the technical virtuosity for that era but makes up for it in its rhythmic demands, complexity and endurance.

But Miss Ward was well up for the challenge. Egged on at one stage by the snare drum, she drove the first movement forward relentlessly, well supported by the orchestra that kept the texture of its fortissimo passages just light enough to let the piano dominate.

The contrast in the second movement (Andante) could not have been greater. A complete change of mood was established immediately by the strings, setting the scene for Miss Ward to present the beautiful meandering melody.

The movement ended with a gradual diminution of the theme to a mere whisper. Miss Ward judged this to perfection. There was not a sound from the mesmerised audience as silence hung in the air after the final note.

The final Allegro was a joyous romp. The complex rhythms, mainly based on 7/8 time, were delivered with confidence and accuracy by soloist and orchestra alike.

A slight deviation from the advertised programme followed the interval when Ellis introduced a gem by Tchaikovsky, from The Snow Maiden, which provides the opportunity to comment on the consistency and sensitivity of the double bass unit.

Finally we arrived at Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony. The bubbly clarinet solo at the start of the second movement was a special joy and was well matched by the staccato wind passages that followed.

The four horns rivalled their earlier performance for the final coda, aided and abetted by the trumpets while the strings maintained their consistency and had enough left to bring the symphony to its triumphant conclusion.

I don’t need to go to London to hear fine music-making. It’s right here on my own doorstep.

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