Sunday, 16 October 2016

Abbey hour (or two)…

I don’t remember ever being inside Pershore Abbey before: probably because, my parents tell me, I was only a few years old, the first – and last – time I was there. I therefore spent the first fifteen minutes – before the concert began – with my jaw on the floor, and my head in the clouds. Reminiscent, in many ways, of Cartmel Priory, or even the much larger Cirencester Parish Church, this is an incredibly beautiful building – drenched in history and atmosphere – and therefore one I must return to, soon.

I did wonder, though, staring upwards – because of the abbey’s truncated proportions; and after spending half a lifetime performing in such high-roofed sacred spaces – how the rare ploughshare vaulting [pdf] would ‘contribute’ to the acoustic. It certainly seemed more suited to the archetypical chanting of plainsong by cowled monks….

And, perhaps, the opener did generate ‘too much sound’ for such a space? But this does not mean either its overall effect, or its subtleties, were lost – David Curtis and the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra obviously having spent the afternoon’s rehearsal acclimatizing themselves to the echoes and baffles such complex architecture presents.

Reliving more of my youth, Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was one of the first pieces I recollect playing the timpani for – hidden away at the back of the huge amassed forces that this composer always seems to require… – although I was a little older than when I first visited Pershore! As if competing with the storm raging outside, as it built towards its close, this delivered cascades of ever-expanding lush, swelling avalanches of sound: generating overwhelming waves of emotion that were the perfect accompaniment to such ravishing music. And yet the woodwind – on astonishing form – sang through clearly (my player of the night being oboist Tessa Pemberton); as did one of the best triangle parts ever written.

I recall, so vividly, wanting to be the percussionist, rather than the timpanist, for this! It’s not often that such few notes command such attention: and therefore full credit to Andrew Pemberton for playing them with such aplomb. The moment he stood, shivers ran up and down my spine. This is when those “avalanches” are unleashed – each one incomprehensibly more powerful than the last: David’s left hand held flat, palm downwards: signalling restraint. Not too long, though, before a swish of the tails, a clenched fist, and the Mastersingers’ march launched into the night with impressive precision and almighty ‘oomph’!

It’s difficult remembering the details of a concert that you basically cried your way through – but I think it’s good for the soul to experience such catharsis (frequently, if possible, please). And there are some nights when immersing yourself in the music and its emotive affect, without concentrating on the minutiae, is just what you need. This was such.

I had known that the last work of the evening would hollow out my soul – a great symphony by one of the very greatest (and one of my favourite) symphonic composers – but had not expected the Wagner, or Bruch’s first violin concerto, which followed, to work their magic, too, quite so thoroughly. But I am glad they did. Musically, and spiritually, this was thus the perfect programme. Three stunning – but contrasting – examples of gritty late nineteenth-century Romanticism. What more can you ask for? And in such aesthetically-moving surroundings, too? Gosh.

The Bruch was, simply put, tremendous. And much of the credit for this must be given to Lisa Ueda (above) – her technique and tone so mesmerizingly sensitive and enthralling. After having the scales removed from my eyes during Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, earlier in the year, again, here was a familiar work rendered fresh and utterly enticing. There was exceptional communication between soloist, conductor and orchestra. And the acoustic furnished the violin’s sound with a perfect richness – suited both to the music and the venue. And yet Lisa always cut clearly through: the balance with the orchestra exemplary.

One of the greatest slow movements ever written (I now realize…), the Adagio was courageously, impeccably paced; and both violinist and orchestra sang their hearts (as I cried mine) out to perfection. Stunning stuff. Balm for the soul. (And one can only dream of the heights Lisa would reach with the Andante of the Elgar concerto….) And that ‘gypsyesque’ finale? Captivating. Never has it sounded quite so invigorating. The extended applause, and the delight on all the performers’ faces, were so well-deserved.

Time, therefore, for the traditional Bardic deep breath of fresh air; and the discovery that the radiance of the music had caused the clouds to part: revealing a similarly vibrant full moon, creeping over the roof of the abbey.

There could never be enough Brahms in the world – and certainly not performed to this gilt-edged standard. All sections of the orchestra – particularly the woodwind and horns – seemed to understand perfectly the various levels of subtlety and sovereignty needed to demonstrate just what an amazingly cohesive work the man’s first symphony is. Long in gestation it may have been, but I struggle to think of another example from that era that has such a perfect narrative arc from startling (indeed gobsmacking) pained opening to its tumultuous, final, joyous chorale. (That pounding launch still has the power to amaze – and I wonder how the first audiences reacted to its startling, imploding intimation of heart-break.)

Here, the genius of Brahms’ orchestration pushed easily through the slightly echoey, treble-muffling ambience: and some of the greatest melodies ever written sang through the building – particularly the long violin solo in the second movement (leader Caroline Broekman on beautifully lyrical form), and the trombones and bassoons in the finale. (And, yes, Brahms’ response to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy is a wonderful, wonderful creation; but I always think the falling ‘alphorn theme’ – the horns echoing the opening notes of Blow the Wind Southerly… – that is intermeshed with it, is the composer at his most inspired.)

Performer of the night has to be David. His already supremely thoughtful and observant conducting appears to have shifted up yet another gear, recently – and, although I get the feeling that he is more at home with smaller forces, it does not show one jot. He invites – nay, challenges – each member of every section to be at their very best, throughout; and there is a level of communication, of mutual trust, that ensures that this happens – and consistently. He may claim that the instrumentalists do “all the hard work” – and, my goodness, they played their socks off, several times over, last night…! – and that all he does is “smile, and wave my arms around”: but he has developed a strong, lasting connection with this orchestra; as well as a great deal of respect and admiration – and it shows. What a fabulous season this is going to be!

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