Pittville Pump Room
12 March 2016
I have said it before, and will no doubt say it again: that, for a town of its size, Cheltenham is incredibly fortunate in its cultural richness – not only its myriad festivals; but possessing one of the very best non-professional orchestras in the country: and the equal of those more famous.
On Saturday night, Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Curtis, gave the second concert of their exciting Russia – Revolution and Romance series: concentrating on the late 19th-century Romantic repertoire – in this case, Tchaikovsky’s Little Russian Symphony, which opened the evening – and music written around the time of the 1917 Revolutions.
This time, linked by folksong – real and invented – we were in for a treat: not only Stravinsky’s stunning, scintillating Firebird Suite from 1919, to finish; but an extremely rare performance of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto (originally composed in 1913), with the equally scintillating Anna Shelest.
The reason this work is so scarcely heard can be put down to two things: firstly, the popularity of the composer’s third concerto; and, secondly, its fearsome, unplayable reputation. It also provoked incredibly damning reactions at its première (not dissimilar to The Rite of Spring, which had received its first, riotous performance just a few months earlier).
Many concert pianists describe it as the most difficult piano concerto. Not only does it feature a ten-minute, soul-crushing, endurance-testing cadenza – the longest in standard repertoire – it also has a notoriously difficult ‘perpetuum mobile’ Scherzo. The work therefore requires invincible technique; enormous strength and stamina; and a courageous lyrical disposition. In other words, it is the perfect vehicle for Shelest: whose interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in the previous concert demonstrated a talent of rare dexterity, musicality and sensitivity.
And thus it proved. She performed the concerto with pugnacious virtuosity: keeping the demanding ‘hidden’ melodies well-stressed and vocalized, despite the surrounding complex ornamentation. Her concentration never wavered – despite the absence of a relaxing slow movement – and neither did her energy and artistry. This was deeply expressive playing, surmounting the technical exercise that appears in print.
The resultant lengthy applause and standing ovation for Shelest was not enough. It never could be. She had partaken in the pianistic equivalent of a triathlon – simultaneously demonstrating technique, emotion and stamina – and been victorious. This was heroic, amazing proficiency; beautiful, moving, percussive, lyrical playing. An astounding, unflagging performance that will stay with me.
But it is not only the solo writing that presents a challenge. The CSO again demonstrated their wizardry (as they had in the Tchaikovsky), with Curtis leading the way – everything from taxing string and woodwind interjections, to a belligerent march for the brass and percussion. Although necessarily overshadowed by Shelest, in the Prokofiev, their own brilliance – in all sections – came to the fore in the Stravinsky.
This was a joyous flight for the Firebird – a characteristic exhibition of control from Curtis, and subtle resultant delight from the CSO. It is as challenging a score, in many ways, as is the Prokofiev for the pianist. But the orchestra luxuriated in its difficulties, producing shimmering dynamics – who knew so many instruments could make so little a sound? – and changing speed instantaneously. Another little miracle to end a quite remarkable evening.
(Stephen Ward, Gloucestershire Echo)
Pittville Pump Room
30 January 2016
Shostakovich: 3rd symphony
Sat in awe, therefore, in the inspiring, regency Pittville Pump Room, I particularly noticed the repeated motif of ascending and descending basslines (you could feel them rising and falling through the soles of your feet); as well as some deft, ornamental instrumental writing – quite tricky stuff, especially in the woodwind (including some literally brilliant piccolo playing from Amanda Kaye): although handled confidently and brightly by the CSO – this often wrapped around a trenchant tune: which, on paper, appears to be buried in the middle of the orchestra. In these passages – especially – the acoustic balance was jewellery of transcendent clarity and sparkle.
The brass, here, again, were characteristically strong, precise, and forthright (reminding me of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast at one point) – although, in contrast, the Vaughan Williams-like, almost military, hushed, trumpet call near the beginning was gorgeously ushered in by Paul Broekman. Such stunning playing from this section – ranging all the way from super-subtle to superexaltation – is possibly the CSO’s USP. (Although the intensely spirited percussionists – Roger Clift, Ros Fletcher, and Freya Ireland – also take some beating.
At one point (figure 45) – and, last night, a shocking transformation – aided by a crucial, muscular assault from timpanist Paul Berrow – from pianississimo in the strings to the sudden outcry of fortissimo in the brass and cymbals – a sudden slamming-on of brakes – I had written the word “Ouch!” This was yet another moment of supreme, characteristic, orchestral control from Curtis – but credit must also go to the cellists and bassists for their courage in following immediately with a subtle, whispered, entrancing, passacaglia-like passage: guaranteed to leave you breathless (and somewhat dewy-eyed).
There are thus hints not only of the Fifth: for example, in some of the episodes of explicit lyricism (especially the Lento at figure 49, for instance) and implicit goose‑stepping; but foreshadowings of the later ‘Leningrad’ Symphony’s horrifying ‘invasion’ theme, with its terrifying, repeated snare-drum motif, at figure 37. Here, Clift shook the hall to its foundations with an instant hail of shocking, aggressive fortississimo – piercing even through the preceding, still-resonating, climactic orchestral tutti.
The opening, soul-penetrating clarinet duo, for example – from Janet McKechnie and then Sarah Chestney – was an archetype of the beauty (both savage and subdued, submissive) that was to follow: in some ways deceptive – this is a dawn that sometimes seems to lead to unrest; to confrontation, rather than celebration. And then there are apogees everywhere – but the one that was head and shoulders above the rest, last night, for me, was at figure 78. Again, fortississimo; again, tutti; again, that ascending bassline – climbing heavenwards, to the Pump Room’s glorious dome… as the foundations vanished.
Mussorgsky: Night on a Bare Mountain
It may be fiendishly famous, and frequently performed, but, here, it lost none of its diabolical power to startle – especially with Curtis at the helm: steering devilish dynamics and tempestuous tempi with infernal intelligence; stopping the orchestral orgies, several times, on a sixpence; and highlighting the subtleties and contrasts that can often be lost in its malevolent mayhem.
I had forgotten, though, just how murky and mysterious the coda can sound: where the music suddenly softens and darkens with the introduction of the abominable bell and hellish harp (John Stillman – my son’s former piano teacher! – extremely realistic, on keyboard); crepuscular harmonics in the cellos; and tenebrose muted violins. It takes courage, I feel, to subdue things as much as last night’s interpretation did (and yet, somehow, retain its eerie radiance), after the rumbustiousness of the rest of the piece. But this worked phenomenally well. The calm before the returning storm….
Tchaikovsky: 2nd piano concerto
Last night, the concerto was radiantly, convincingly expounded by the scintillating, mesmerizing, Anna Shelest – “hailed by The New York Times as a pianist of ‘a fiery sensibility and warm touch’” – who I had never encountered before. It is difficult to stamp your own identity and authority on such a familiar work: but this was an utterly fresh, individual, intense, immersive, intelligent, emphatic, sparkling reading – Shelest almost communing with the piano… – right from that majestic salutation; through the pyrotechnics of the many cadenzas (labelled as such – or not); and on to that emphatic final unison B flat. (What a finish!)
The moments for relaxation, though, are extremely limited – this is an epic work: requiring great concentration as well as technique (although such necessities were rendered invisible by Shelest’s obvious virtuosity and sovereignty). Firstly, in the opening movement – at the Poco più sostenuto – in preparation for the following stupendous tumbling chime of church bells: which leads to a moment of reflection, and then a very serious struggle for superiority – with the CSO giving as good as they got. Secondly, the Poco più mosso of the last movement – Allegro – before that final build: where the combatants finally shake hands, and join together in one of Tchaikovsky’s most stirring signature tunes (which I’m still singing, over five hours later…).
As well as exploiting the full range of the piano – of effects, as well as of range: it is sometimes all too easy to forget that this is a percussive instrument, as well as a melodious one (but not here – some of the bass notes were stupendously powerful…) – Shelest scaled the seemingly infinite mountainous heaps of octaves and arpeggios with effortless precision and natural persuasion. And, however much of the time she appeared to be blasting explosive rockets and roman candles into the air, it was her subtle, intricate, sparkling accompaniments (especially of the woodwind: who proved again, what melodic masters they are…) that proved to be the passages of greatest joy and discernment.
What a wonderful, innate, seasoned talent! (Not only that: her instinctive communication with Curtis and the CSO was a joy to behold.)
(The Bard of Tysoe; http://tysoebard.blogspot.co.uk)
Cheltenham Town Hall
28 November 2015
…the work never stops punching you in the guts with its emotional impact, aided by Donohoe’s majestic, ringing, virtuousic keyboard playing. His partnership (which it truly was) with conductor David Curtis and the CSO rendered it a monumental spiritual assault.
…the opening horn call (delicately wafted into the air by Laura Morris – and subsequently recapitulated perfectly by Kelly Haines)
…the cello (beautifully, hauntingly bowed by Andrea Harries: who received rapt, delighted attention from the generous Donohoe)
…The last movement – regardless of what anyone else may tell you; and despite the hint of Hungarian dance rhythm and final march (again heading towards Shostakovich territory) – superbly controlled by maestro Curtis
…Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony provokes and questions the abilities of each and every member of any orchestra that dares confront it. Here, though, these readily-tarnishing challenges were transformed into golden opportunities – and the CSO explored the very heights of proficiency, authority and exultancy – giving rise to one of the greatest orchestral performances I have experienced.
…every single person who contributed to tonight’s astonishing achievement should be immensely proud of themselves. This was musicianship of the very highest order – from the conductor to the clarinets; the brass to the bass drum; the piccolo to the piano.
…The pace was perfect; as were the dynamics.
…It is tragedy of the most heart-piercing kind – a “long arc… of a bittersweet, aching intensity” – and I do not envy those who have to perform it – although the CSO, under the tight helmsmanship of an obviously emotionally-wrought Curtis – were sensational in their pure and sure commitment.
…Thankfully, Curtis paused…Here, in the coda, he then once more showed his shrewdness – and fulfilled his desire to “always tell a story” with the music – in finding a middle way between the ‘traditional’ fast and triumphal European dash to glory; and the more Russian, slow, tragic and disintegrating weariness. What we experienced was therefore no victory parade – hollow or otherwise. On the weekend of the Stop the War protests and the Climate Change March, these hammered, screaming, repeated chords felt like a forced procession to the scaffold for the whole of humanity.
…Even when Shostakovich appears to be lightening up a little – or even taking the mickey – he is nothing less than intensely serious in his aims and methods. And it shows. (I think the same can be said of Curtis, by the way.)
(The Bard of Tysoe; http://tysoebard.blogspot.co.uk)
Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham
8 March 2014
I have to admit to being something of a Romantic, particularly as far as Russian music is concerned, and to hear three master-works from the great age of Russian Romantic music was a special treat.
Tchaikovsky composed his Fantasy Overture in 1870 and subjected it to considerable revision over the decade. The result is a carefully worked out series of wonderful themes cast within a disciplined symphonic framework. Conductor David Curtis, who clearly cherishes the work, offered a helpful illustrated introduction to it pointing out its subtleties, before translating his instincts for the music into a mesmerising performance.
The chorale-like Friar Lawrence theme sounded more Russian Orthodox than Catholic but the swashbuckling turbulence when the Montagues and Capulets burst upon the scene could have represented a conflict anywhere, and was handled with verve and nail biting precision. An oboe passage followed by gentle string playing introduced us to the “star-crossed lovers” allowing self-confessed romantics to bask in waves of emotion for a while until a storm of violence returned which not even the saintly friar could hold at bay. Not all the players in the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra are full time professional musicians, but one would not have suspected it given the fire, passion – plus an engaging tenderness – they brought to this terrific music.
But David Curtis has mastered the art of coaxing the best out of people – not least the violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen, and I arrived full of expectation for their performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. After a gentle orchestral introduction Tamsin burst on to the scene and introduced the tender opening theme with expression and assurance. As the movement progressed the violin playing became ever more daring, decorating the theme with a shimmering display of arabesques and runs to culminate in a cadenza that combined expression and high-octane technique so thrillingly. In the wistful Canzonetta the violin melody emerged, as it were, from the mists to exquisite effect with a carefully judged accompaniment from the orchestra, moving without a break into the concluding Trepak. Here Tamsin tantalisingly took her time to gain speed, but when she did so she produced a performance that was fast, brilliant and effortless, and energised the orchestra. Later the tempo slowed for a blissfully tender passage in which the violin died down to a whisper before building up to an exciting climax.
This is not the first rave review I have penned of Curtis and Waley-Cohen, so cynics might accuse me of backhanders, which I hotly deny. The fact is the two are a class act and music lovers should be queuing up to hear their live concerts and buy their recordings.
It was an excellent idea to leave the Borodin until last, for behind its entrancing folk melodies the symphony (composed in 1878) has a much craggier Russian feel. The dance-like scherzo with its fluttering brass accompaniment was impressive, as was the slow movement with its heavenly harp-flute introduction, later taken up by the woodwind, which conjured up a feeling of times past. The percussion were out in force for the fast-paced fiery finale which sounded authentically Polovtsian. Need I say more?
(Roger Jones, Seen and Heard International)
Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham
1 February 2014
It was clear that the genial David Curtis has been working in China recently for his first move was to invite the audience to turn on their mobile phones, take pictures of the orchestra and then tweet their friends to tell them what they were missing. Afterwards the phones were dutifully switched off and the concert got underway with a flash-free performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute Overture which was well prepared and had variety and sparkle.
The young Waley-Cohens are making quite a name for themselves these days. Sam Waley-Cohen is well known within the racing fraternity as a prize-winning jockey, while his cousin Tamsin is making her mark as a violinist of great merit. She appeared remarkably relaxed before embarking on one for the most demanding of all violin concertos, but she obviously felt she was in good hands. She has performed on numerous occasions with tonight’s conductor and the bond of trust between the two was much in evidence as the music progressed.
There was an expansive, relaxed feel to the orchestral tutti which introduces the main themes of the first movement with some sublime playing from the woodwind section. Tamsin then entered with a flourish and proceeded to show how these themes can sound even better when played on a solo violin. Her performance flowed impeccably; she handled the decorated passages effortlessly and responded to the technical challenges of the cadenza at the end with great aplomb. At times it seemed as if two violins were playing simultaneously. The orchestra eased us gently into the Larghetto and the quiet, unhurried approach enabled to violin to sing out its melodies with some serene hushed pianissimos. Then in a trice the mood changed and David Curtis allowed his musicians off the leash in the jaunty finale in which Tamsin participated with obvious relish making dazzling use of the violin’s melodic range. Yet there was a look back to the tranquility of the slow movement in the wistful song-like melody which calmed down the high spirits for a while. This was a performance which touched the soul and made the familiar sound extraordinary.
Tamsin has been engaged to play the Tchaikovsky and Brahms concertos with Curtis and the CSO on two more occasions in the spring, and I for one can’t wait to hear them.
The second half of the programme was devoted to another very familiar work, but under David Curtis’s direction Dvořák’s Eighth sounded fresh and newly minted. Again the woodwind covered themselves with glory in their imitation of birdsong and the first two movements came over as an exhilarating celebration of the great outdoors. The third movement intermezzo had an undisputed charm infused with melancholy, and there was a wealth of contrast in the variations of the final movement which built up to a vigorous conclusion.
19 October 2013
With St Cecilia’s Day (and Britten’s birthday) fast approaching, the musical world is gearing up for a final flurry of celebrations for the Britten centenary.
The inclusion of a short work by Leonard Bernstein in this concert was very appropriate, for the American composer/conductor was one of the first to appreciate features in Britten’s music that others did not: “When you hear Britten’s music …… you become aware of something very dark. There are gears that are grinding and not quite meshing, and they make a great pain.”
The darkness and pain, however, were not obvious during the first half of this concert which began with a setting of the National Anthem composed for the Leeds Festival of 1961. The stately tranquillity of the opening verse helped to make the final outburst of patriotic fervour all the more impressive.
No Britten celebration can or should ignore his tremendous output of music for children. Two youth choirs from Westbury on Trym and Leckhampton (Cheltenham) made a truly joyful noise in his setting of Psalm 150 which he had composed for the centenary of his prep school in 1962. The dance-like section beginning ‘Praise Him in the sound of the Trumpet’ was given a spirited performance with the orchestra joining in the joyful melee complete with clashing cymbals, castanets and harps.
Also composed with young people in mind is his Young Person’s Guide which started out in life as an educational film, The Instruments of the Orchestra, directed by Muir Matheson for which Sir Malcolm Sargent conducted the London Symphony Orchestra and spoke the narration. Nowadays it tends to be performed as a concert piece without any breaks for an explanation, so it was refreshing to hear it in its original form with Rick Wakeman narrating from the pulpit. The audience were treated to such gems as “the woodwind are superior versions of the penny whistle and are made of wood”, “the cellos sing with a splendid richness and warmth” and “the double basses are the grandfathers of the string section”. Mr Wakeman was on splendid form, enunciating the words with clarity and warmth, and the musicians also played their part impeccably in bringing out the distinctiveness of their various instruments.
The second part of the concert was devoted to Britten’s Spring Symphony in which the composer demonstrates his considerable grasp of and feeling for English poetry combined with his supreme ability to set it to music. Most of the poetry dates from the 16th and 17th centuries and is by writers such as Edmund Spenser, Robert Herrick and John Milton. Unlike Schumann’s symphony with the same title this work is prone to undercurrents of darkness and self-doubt. The opening poem George Chapman’s Shine out, fair Sun had a particularly bleak, wintry feel about it with the choral passages underlined by quiet contributions for the percussion and violins playing in a high register. However a final crescendo from orchestra and choir did the trick; Spring finally burst forth and after a trumpet fanfare Richard Edgar-Wilson launched into Spenser’s The Merry Cuckoo. Soon he and the other soloists were imitating bird calls in Spring the sweet spring, after which the Westbury on Trym choir performed The driving boy with Rachel Chapman. The main choir gave Milton’s The morning star something of a lilt before becoming more serious – a return to Britten’s angst-ridden beginning perhaps?
In the slow movement the lower strings brought dark undercurrents to Herrick’s To Violets which, though respected, are also neglected; and this added extra poignancy to Diana Moore’s singing. The upper strings bowed sul ponticello to evoke a gentle shower of rain in Vaughan’s Waters Above sung so serenely by Richard Edgar-Wilson. Diana Moore returned to sing with a wordless chorus the only contemporary poem in the selection, Auden’s Out on the lawn I lie in bed, in which the apparent calm was interrupted momentarily by a violent orchestral tutti as Germany’s invasion of Poland was recalled.
The third movement, a scherzo, opened with When will my May come in which Richard Edgar Wilson sang the hopeful, yet fearful lover to the accompaniment of harp arpeggios. Proof that the path of true love never runs smooth came in the duet Fair and Fair in which he took the role of Paris with Rachel Chapman as his mountain nymph lover, both of whom are affected by Cupid’s curse. Blake’s Sound the Flute for chorus and orchestra ended the movement on a more upbeat note.
Finally Merrie England really came to life in the spirited setting of a poem Beaumont and Fletcher for full orchestra, choirs and a cow horn played by Paul Broekman. In the resonant Norman nave of Tewkesbury Abbey a great deal of the detail got lost unfortunately and in many ways I preferred the earlier movements with their somewhat spare, but extremely effective, accompaniments which supported rather than competed with the voices. The work was first performed in 1949 at the Holland Festival by luminaries like Peter Pears and Kathleen Ferrier when the composer was 35, and one cannot help feeling that it points forward in construction and sentiment to his much more famous War Requiem.
This was an evening of splendid performances which offered different insights into Britten’s music. Choirmaster David Ogden had brought his singers up to a peak level of performance with help from Miriam Hartley (Leckhampton), the words came through expressively and clearly from the soloists. David Curtis managed his musical forces, including the excellent Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra, with his customary precision and flair.
Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham
March 9, 2013
Gloucestershire’s Young Musician of 2012 was the star of this concert.
Playing the Vaughan Williams Concerto for Oboe and Strings, Timothy Keasley communicated with ease the capriciousness and lyricism of this light-hearted work. The rhapsodic opening theme gave way to a whimsical dance-like melody in the folk tradition which provoked a lively response from the strings. The second movement harked back to 18th century dance forms although the idiom was distinctly 20th century. Perhaps the most interesting movement was the finale with its frequent changes of rhythm creating several surprises. Described as a Scherzo there was plenty of banter between soloist and orchestra, but there were a number of slow passages too which enabled Timothy to display his sensitivity as a player in addition to his agility in the faster parts. Though Vaughan Williams composed the Concerto during the Second World War, the other two works on the programme were far darker in mood.
Brahms did not like the nickname given to his ‘Tragic’ Overture, but a cloud certainly hovers over it. The performance got off to a heavy start – the Pump Room is not large enough to accommodate an orchestra at full stretch – but later there were moments of sheer beauty as high drama gave way to a mood of calm.
The fate motif which dominates Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony was introduced subtly by conductor David Curtis, while the following themes were built up into tense climaxes. The slow movement with its extended horn solo created a sense of wistful nostalgia, and the waltz of the third movement seemed to take us into the great outdoors thanks to lively contributions from the woodwind. The finale was a contest between light and dark but light eventually prevailed to transform the fate theme into one of triumph.
Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham
January 12, 2013
Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra brought a dash of colour to a drab January evening with some lively music mainly by Russian composers.
Khachaturian’s Masquerade set the ball rolling with a fast-paced Waltz, a light-hearted Mazurka and a zany Galop – interspersed with a dreamy Nocturne and a nostalgic Romance. The brilliant orchestration offered all sections of the orchestra opportunities to show off their skills – and they certainly took them.
The French composer Henri Tomasi is virtually unknown on these shores, so the CSO deserve our thanks for introducing his Trombone Concerto to Cheltenham. Admittedly the first movement seemed to lack focus, but the piece came alive with the imaginatively scored nocturne full of eerie background noises and the South American rhythms of the finale. Philip Cowley, the orchestra’s principal trombone, played the solo part with conviction and considerable virtuosity.
There was more colourful playing in Rimsky-Korsakov’s suite The Snow Maiden, which starts off with a vivid evocation of nature springing into life as the winter snows disappear. The woodwind section.produced some realistic bird calls in the Dance of the Birds, which was followed by a more solemn Tsar’s procession and the jolly Dance of the Tumblers.
Later toy soldiers, a Sugar Plum Fairy and other familiar characters made their entrance. Not literally, of course – but the CSO’s playing of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet Suite was so compelling that visual stimulus was unnecessary. The restlessness of the Trepak, the exoticism of the Arab Dance and the magical Dance of the Reed Pipers were particulary well handled.
Conductor David Curtis topped this up with a trip to Spain by courtesy, not of Thomas Cook, but Rimsky-Korsakov. This performance of his Capriccio Espagnol captured splendidly the warmth and vitality of southern Europe with some exquisite violin solos from the orchestra’s leader, Caroline Broekman.
All Saints Church, Cheltenham
October 6, 2012
How can one categorise Das Lied von der Erde: as a song cycle, a symphony or a combination of both? Mahler himself entitled it “Symphony for tenor, contralto and large orchestra” while Bruno Walter described it as “the most personal utterance among Mahler’s creations, and perhaps in all music”. It came at one of the low points of the composer’s life: his eldest daughter had just died, he had been forced to resign from the directorship of the Court Opera in Vienna and – to top it all – he had been diagnosed with heart trouble. Somehow he needed a way to express, or perhaps to bury, his sorrows.
The inspiration from the work is Chinese poetry by Li Tai-po, Chang Tai and others which had been freely translated into German. From the very start of the concert one entered a sound world very different from the Austro-German musical tradition with percussion and dissonance in the woodwind and brass section. Daniel Norman created a sense of the exotic and distant places in “The Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth” where the jollity is something of a sham. Each verse ends with the reminder “Dunkel is das Leben, ist der Tod” (Dark is life, is death). Mr Norman’s second song, “Of Youth”, depicted a more sophisticated gathering of poets and philosophers in a porcelain pavilion in the middle of a lake – a delicately sung episode with sparse accompaniment. The tenor gave an engagingly good-humoured account of “The Drunkard in Spring” which extols the benefits of drowning one’s sorrows with wine.
There was an overwhelming sense of desolation in “The Lonely One in Autumn” poignantly communicated by Diana Moore helped by some gentle contributions from solo flute and oboe. Indeed much of the music is intimate – more like chamber music. This is late autumn when the leaves have fallen from the trees and a cold wind is blowing; the plea Gib mir Ruh (Grant me rest) was a reflection of deep inner pain. “Of Beauty” was a more cheerful song about maidens bathing and young men riding by; but the song develops a more personal aspect as one of the girls gazes after a rider with a burning desire. “The Farewell” – consisting of two Chinese poems and words by Mahler himself – is by far the longest movement of the set and is announced by a clash of cymbals. But this is also the most profound, spiritual and timeless of all, qualities that Diana Moore expressed so perfectly in her singing. As I heard the closing words “Allüberall und ewig blauen licht die Fernen … ewig … ewig” ( Everywhere distant spaces shine their blue light) I couldn’t help recalling another singer who made these songs her own – Kathleen Ferrier, whose centenary we have been commemorating this year. Indeed, I am bold to say that this performance was very much in the Kathleen Ferrier mould.
Originally this concert was scheduled to end with the Mahler, which would have made sound chronological sense. But the organisers clearly decided that it was better to end with a bang rather than a whimper, and bangs don’t come much bigger than the triumphal end to Brahms’ First, though the earlier stages of the symphony have their fair share of tragedy and pathos.
The Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra is not a full-time professional ensemble but it contains many experience and committed players who have responded well over the years to David Curtis’ astute direction. He has pushed the players along some challenging routes – not only to perform Mahler, but also other sizeable works such as Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, so Brahms held no horrors for them. The musicians demonstrated plenty of confidence in the solemn introduction and took the passion and conflict of the allegro in their stride thanks in no small measure to the clarity of the conducting.
The andante sostenuto had a nice lyrical feel in addition to providing consolation, and the third movement intermezzo turned out to be a pleasant, refreshing ramble. There was warmth in the melodious opening to the finale and the orchestra sustained the mood of boisterousness and optimism until the end. Maybe the orchestra fell short of the standards of the Berlin Philharmonic but the musicians partly made up for this with their enthusiasm and verve. I suspect that their debut appearance on the radio station Classic FM earlier in the week will not be their last.
Roger Jones (Seen and Heard International)
All Saints Church, Cheltenham
April 28, 2012
Another coup for conductor David Curtis and the orchestra. Continuing to expand their repertoire, gain confidence and build on their firm foundation of proficiency, they excited us with a picturesque journey to Athens, Florida and Australia.
“Buzzing” suitably, firm rhythms were retained in Vaughan Williams’ Overture The Wasps – incidental music to Aristophanes’ satirical play of Athenian obsession with litigation. Each instrumental section clearly projected VW’s broad fluid themes emerging from the buzzing chatter of the “Attic wasps”.
Like fellow Bradfordian David Hockney, Frederick Delius inspires our awareness of nature with its shifting lights and beauty after contemplation. Delius captured the tranquility and vista of his Florida orange plantation, sunsets and negroid harmonies in his Florida Suite which the orchestra interpreted euphoniously and empathetically. Hushed violins shimmered into Daybreak followed by twittering flute and piccolo birds eventually breaking into the ravishing La Calinda dance featuring a laudable performance on the haunting cor anglais. Lush cello playing prominently heralded Sunset preceding a spirited dance which nearly ran away with the orchestra! Dynamics were excellent throughout and the harp was not overshadowed as in the first piece.
Turning to England, living composer Edward Gregson’s Tuba Concerto was played by 2011 Gloucestershire Young Musician Andrew McDade. Playing with feeling and flair is never easy but standing holding this giant of instruments Andrew accomplished these with perfect aplomb. In particular his restrained playing of the subdued cantabile melody in the Lento movement added to the evocative and mysterious mood whilst virtuosity shone through in the convincing cadenza in the Allegro. Using the full range of dynamics and notation revealed unthinkable flexibility in both instrument and soloist before the concerto romped to a frenetic finish.
Australia provided the final leg of the trip with John Ireland’s suite The Overlanders, originally written as a film score in 1946. Expectantly descriptive of a 1600-mile trek through the outback the orchestra compellingly conveyed the scenes. Dexterous clarinet passages teamed with rapping xylophone in the wildly dancing Scherzo to enhance a scene of unruly “Brumbies” . With a final dramatic Night Stampede the orchestra did just that and brought our peregrinations to a close.
Cheltenham Town Hall
February 4, 2012
The Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra was in a more light-hearted mood than usual in this concert in aid of the Mayor of Cheltenham’s charities, and started off with a suitably frothy performance of the overture to Die Fledermaus.
The strings of the orchestra sounded their silken best, especially in the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with former BBC Young Musician finalist Sarah Williamson. Mozart was close to death when he composed this work but here was no hint of sadness in it, and the effortless playing of the soloist conveyed a sense of timelessness and joie de vivre. Her beautifully smooth and unhurried Adagio followed by a perky and optimistic Finale made for as perfect a performance as one could ever hope for.
Andy McDade, last year’s Gloucestershire Young Musician winner, added to the air of jollity with his extraordinary rendition of Baadvik’s Fnugg for solo tuba. However, Mahler’s Adagietto for strings and harp brought a more serious tone to the proceedings as David Curtis squeezed every ounce of emotion from his musicians in an achingly tender and heartfelt performance.
There was an unexpected bonus in the second half when the splendour and elegance of Old Vienna was brought to life by eight dancers from the Elmhurst School for Dance. The ambitious dance sequences to
the waltz music of Johann Strauss II were truly spectacular. The women appeared to float through the air in their long flowing dresses aided by their impeccably turned out partners, their dancing graceful and seemingly effortless.
The input by both musicians and dancers clearly impressed the Mayor, Cllr Barbara Driver, who told them:“You are stars.”
Pittville Pump Room
Sunday December 11, 2011
Admiration and credit are due in abundance to the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra for their Herculean performance before a jam-packed audience.
Responding energetically to David Curtis’ clear but not over-expansive conducting they created three completely different moods, colours and styles in the three works. Although quite taxing it was the intense concentration required for Elgar’s mammoth 2nd Symphony which must have been energy-sapping.
Playing Hamish MacCunn’s overture Land of the Mountain and the Flood confidently and boldly, the orchestra evoked vivid scenes of the rugged Scottish landscape. The popularly known theme used in the TV programme Sutherland’s Law provided lyrical interludes. In contrast the brass dominated over hurrying, scurrying accompaniment like warriors charging into battle. A brass fanfare heralded majestic chords at the exultant conclusion.
Lacking histrionics, Julian Lloyd Webber established a good rapport with conductor David Curtis. He captured the continuous flow of languid serenity and reverie in Delius’ rhapsodic Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. Lyricism and sensitivity poured from Julian’s cello strings. Despite emotive cello, melancholic woodwind and rippling harp Delius’ edginess in his chromatic harmony and scale passages characterised his inimitable style. Occasionally the brass jarred the mood and from time to time the orchestra overshadowed the soloist. However the orchestra proved it could shimmer and fade to a barely perceptible whisper as it reached the conclusion of the work.
In Elgar’s 2nd Symphony unconstrained playing of robust chordal marches with majestic brass and persistent throbbing rums and timpani alternated with more constrained playing of gentle wistful sections. Emphasising the contrasts throughout, the orchestra created mood swings or as Elgar remarked “a sort of madness”.
The sombre funeral march of the second movement preceded accomplished playing of sweeping Elgarian phrases whilst achieving a ppp ending.
After attaining a gloriously violent and explosive outburst in the Rondo the orchestra moved on to produce a noble and grandiose element to the final movement. A trumpet rings out on a long-held high B note before the “spirit of delight” theme which opened the symphony returned to conclude with an unexpectedly tranquil ending.
Saturday 8th October 2011
It has taken ten months for Gloucestershire to get round to celebrating Mahler’s centenary, but this performance of his Sixth Symphony by the CSO under David Curtis’s baton was well worth the wait.
It was preceded by Richard Strauss’s Fanfare for the City of Vienna for brass and timpani. Placing the musicians in the north and south aisles created a splendid effect for music which alternated between grandeur, lyricism and high spirits.
There was not a hint in the piece, composed in 1943, of the war that had engulfed Europe at the time. Nor would you have guessed that Mahler composed his so-called Tragic Symphony during one of the happiest periods of his life.
This is a sombre work – a recognition, perhaps, that life seldom turns out to be as rosy as it seems. Conductor David Curtis seemed determined to pile on the agony in the gloomy, relentless march which features so prominently in the first movement, and not even the sound of cowbells evoking a more placid rural scene could lighten the mood.
The dance-like scherzo was even more sinister, though its trio coda, which sounded quaintly old fashioned and doddery, had a certain charm. It was only during the slow movement, with its calm, serene atmosphere, that one felt the composer at peace with the world.
The finale started defiantly and produced plenty of searing, weird, disturbing music. There was little respite from the sense of gloom and desolation, and towards the end three hammer blows presaged disaster.
Playing this uncompromising 90-minute work non-stop was an ambitious undertaking. However, the hundred-strong Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra never faltered, responding magnificently to David Curtis’s clear direction to create a musical event of epic proportions.
Bredon Village Hall
Saturday 9th July 2011
On 9th July, after the triumph of its Concert last summer, the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra paid its second visit to Bredon Village Hall.
Again, this year, the Orchestra, led by Caroline Broekman, and under its indefatigable conductor, David Curtis, provided a veritable feast of enjoyable musical works (and fireworks!).
Firstly, we took a virtual trip to the Hebrides and the Isle of Staffa as our senses fused with those of the players in experiencing the wonderful seascapes musically painted by Felix Mendelssohn in his glorious tone picture, the Fingal’s Cave Overture. The sea thundered, the gulls screeched, the winds blew, then the sun shone and all went calm before the elements resumed their conflict with the rocks before once more lapsing into peace and tranquillity and allowing us to come back down to earth in Bredon as the large audience showed its appreciation.
For the second offering we were treated to a superb performance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto, graced by the presence once more of that young virtuoso, Mathieu van Bellen. What a performer, and what a performance! Now still only 23 years of age, he possesses mature talent which invites favourable comparison with players twice his age. Apart from all the other pluses; a good presence, wonderful range of dynamics, lovely playing tone; he, with the best of his genre at times gives the impression that there are several violins playing during his solo periods, sometimes in unison, and often in harmony. He communicates a clear sense of being happy to be with the audience and with the Orchestra, and the Orchestra and its Conductor reflect that sensation to create one huge and beautiful musical tapestry. Fed by this charismatic combination, the energy and grace of the youthful Mozart was held out to us, and we loved it.
After the interval the feast of music resumed, with a spirited performance of the great Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. In his eloquent introduction, David Curtis, after outlining some of the salient points, and asking us to listen with fresh ears, as if we had never before heard it, informed us that, whilst he had tried to persuade the Orchestra to be moderate in their playing of the very loud treble forte passages, he feared that we might just have to put up with the thunder. Those of you who are familiar with this work will know that it, along with the more lyrical phases, is replete with extremely lively and thunderous passages. We sat there transfixed by the tsunami of musical power which washed over and around us, alternately pounded us on the rocks, and then held us out to dry. It finished far too soon.
If you want a taste of what it is like to be among the players of a large Symphony Orchestra, then come to a performance in one of the more intimate venues such as Bredon Village Hall. You will be as near to this goal as you ever will be unless you take up playing! May
All Saints Church, Cheltenham
Saturday 7th May 2011
All Saints Church reverberated to a challenging programme played by the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra.
The four-manual organ gave full voice to Toccata Festiva for organ and orchestra by Barber.
Written for the inauguration of an organ in Philadelphia, it began with a bang, but quickly moved into lyricism. Using many registrations and covering a wide compass, it showed off the grandeur of the instrument.
Cameron Luke was the first-rate soloist, engaging our admiration in his command of the pedalboard.
David Curtis is an excellent conductor, always giving a clear beat; no easy task in the Barber, which jumped between many different time signatures. His command of the players throughout the evening was a lesson in how to get the best out of an orchestra. And they gave their best in Berlioz’ Harold in Italy.
Soloist Philip Heyman played an unusual five-string viola, based on an American model, made in Cardiff. It has a deep, rich tone, well suited to this interesting work, full of Berlioz bluster, but with stillness and charm.
The acoustics of All Saints are so crisp that every instrument is clearly heard. This added to the appreciation of Rimsky- Korsakov’s orchestral writing in Scheherezade. Although there is a paucity of melodic material, he interests us by his interweaving of themes and orchestral colour.
Anne Dunn (Gloucestershire Echo)
Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham
Saturday 19th February 2011
After the leaden skies of recent days the CSO lifted everyone’s spirits by administering a dose of musical sunshine.
Nielsen’s Helios Overture “in praise of the sun” was inspired by a sunrise the composer and his wife witnessed in Greece.
Conductor David Curtis and the orchestra skilfully captured the atmosphere of the music with the cellos, double basses and horns especially deserving of praise for the way they began and concluded the work so effectively.
Alice Pinto was the soloist in Beethoven’s lyrical Fourth Piano Concerto and impressed from the outset with the clarity of her playing.
In the slow movement, Alice’s placid and persuasive playing eventually mollified the gruff outbursts from the orchestra and the finale developed into a jolly romp with both soloist and orchestra vying with each other in the charm offensive. Clearly, Alice is a musician of considerable promise.
Clarinettist Janet McKechnie set the tone for Sibelius’ First Symphony with her eloquent playing of the bleak opening solo. The violins then sprang into life and displayed their mettle in the subsequent “yearning” motif.
In the scherzo, melodies bounced from one section of the orchestra to another, and in the finale the clarinet returned to point the way forward to a succession of moods, varying from the frenzied to the passionate with some notable contributions from the brass and percussion. This was a impressive, large-scale performance which would have sounded even better in a larger auditorium.
Roger Jones (Gloucestershire Echo)
Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham
9th January 2011
2010 was a good year for Therese de Souza – almost.
She won the Gloucestershire Musician of the Year contest and performed at the Cheltenham Music Festival, but her final concert of the year, with the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra, had to be called off because of the severe weather.
Fortunately the CSO decided to reinstate the event, and her performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto proved well worth the wait. Therese is a confident performer and made light of the robust first subject of the opening movement and the complex technical demands of the cadenza.
But after the flutes and clarinets introduced the gentler second subject, her tone became more expressive and personal. She went on to pour her soul into the lovely andante, finishing off with a scintillating account of the whimsical finale interacting seamlessly with the well groomed orchestra under David Curtis’s alert direction.
The concert had begun with Rimsky Korsakov’s Christmas Eve Suite based on a story by Gogol. This was full of lush, imaginative, colourful music depicting snow falling, stars dancing in the heavens and a myriad Christmas festivities. David Curtis and the orchestra captured the Christmas spirit to perfection not least in the final section in which the bells ring out to welcome the faithful to midnight mass.
Leckhampton Primary School provided more seasonal fare with Rutter’s Jesus Child gently accompanied by the orchestra. They followed this up with a splendid performance of Welcome To Our World in a sympathetic arrangement by the CSO’s Andrew Chapman.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Star Wars, but David Curtis has, and he’s clearly a great enthusiast. Given the size of the Pump Room, I wish he had exercised greater restraint in the Suite from the film and turned down the volume in the brassier bits.
However, Leckhampton Primary seemed to enjoy the experience, and there’s no denying the CSO were on top form.
Roger Jones (Gloucestershire Echo)