Orchestra from Shakespeare’s Home Town Displays Swan-Like Qualities

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Mozart: Julian Lloyd Webber (cello), Orchestra of the Swan / David Curtis (conductor, Town Hall, Cheltenham, 24.Feb.2011. (RJ)

Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48
Shostakovich: Concert No. 1 for Cello in E flat major, Op. 107
Mozart: Symphony No. 41 in C major, K551 (Jupiter)

The exploits of England’s provincial orchestras are not as well known as they deserve to be, so a few words of introduction may be necessary for the Orchestra of the Swan. Based at Stratford upon Avon the thirty or so musicians and their conductor David Curtis perform at venues throughout Britain, commission new work from composers, such as John Woolrich, Roxanna Panufnik, John Joubert , and have an impressive discography which has caught the attention of Washington Public Radio and Chicago Public Radio in the USA among others. American Record Guide compares David Curtis to Sir Adrian Boult.

Tonight’s concert contrasted the optimism and graciousness of the eighteenth century with the darker side of the twentieth. Yes, I realise that Tchaikovsky was a nineteenth century composer, but his Serenade for Strings owes a lot to Mozart and has a distinctly classical feel. After a stirring slow introduction the Orchestra adopted a lighter touch which carried over to the graceful waltz movement with its gentle close. The Elegie was characterised by some beautifully hushed and intimate playing (not every orchestra can play so quietly and so well) before the more flamboyant finale based on the Russian folk songs On the Green Meadow and Under the Green Apple Tree.

Ater the sunniness of the Serenade, the Shostakovich came as a shock to the system. There was no grandiose introduction; instead Julian Lloyd Webber’s cello got the work off to a brusque and gritty start with the DSCH motif, which dominates the work, accompanied by grotesque sounds from the woodwind. As the cello moved into a higher register the music gained in intensity and speed, but the change of tone failed to dissipate the bleakness of the work.

There was respite of sorts in the elegiac second movement which included a moving passage where the horn, played expressively by David Garbutt, begins a lament which is then taken up by the cello. Melancholy and tenderness pervaded the playing in equal measure, but the music grew fainter culminating in an quiet passage for cello and celesta sounding like raindrops on a very grey day with a hint of thunder from the timpani at the end. Cadenza, the unaccompanied third movement, was a tour de force by Lloyd Webber who expressed anguish and desolation as he plucked and bowed his instrument while exploring the different themes of the work.

The pace speeded up in the rhythmic finale, which was riotous but hardly joyful. While it may have included one of Stalin’s favourite songs, the impression conveyed was more akin to a Witches’ Sabbath or the Dance of Death. Lloyd Webber and conductor David Curtis perform regularly together – Julian lives just up the road from Stratford, which is handy – and judging by this arresting performance theirs is a meeting of minds.

The final work on the programme was the earliest, but having the Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich before Mozart’s Jupiter was a brain wave. Curtis and the Orchestra of the Swan seemed intent on shedding new light on the piece and emphasise its modernity. In the first movement passages of great delicacy and refinement contrasted with dramatic outbursts Beethovenian in scale. The second movement really did sing, but in the light of the Shostakovich one sensed disturbing undercurrents. The minuet had a definite lilt, but was much more than a mere dance, and the mighty finale sounded positively Promethean. This is a chamber orchestra which sets high musical standards and is clearly going places.

For more information look at www.orchestraoftheswan.org.

Roger Jones